Early in Jesus’ ministry, he has a clandestine encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). The incident is only recorded in John’s gospel where Pharisees are presented as antagonists to Jesus with only two exceptions (John 3:1, 9:16). Nicodemus is also a member of the Sanhedrin which indicates that he is a member of a high social strata (John 3:1). Given this background it is perhaps not surprising that Nicodemus chooses to meet with Jesus under cover of night (John 3:2).
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “ Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2, NASB)Nicodemus, a prominent religious man who engages Jesus by night stands in contrast to Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, a disenfranchised woman who meets Jesus in broad daylight, in the next chapter (John 4:1-26, 39-42). Despite their differences, both serve as foils for Jesus.
As was customary, Nicodemus addresses Jesus with diplomacy. Though traveling alone Nicodemus speaks in the plural. Despite his grammar, the ensuing conversation lends itself to a personal visit not official business. Presumably intrigued by Jesus’ miracle working, Nicodemus’ limitations are seen in his flattering opening statement as he immediately attempts to fit Jesus into a ready-made worldview (John 3:2).
Robert Kysar (b. 1934) explains:
He honors Jesus as a Rabbi and a teacher come from God, but in terms of John’s view of Christ such titles fail to penetrate the identity of the revealer. The affirmation that God is with Jesus ironically contrasts to Jesus’ true identity, the Father’s unique Son. The signs done by Jesus are not sufficient grounds for belief in him in any full sense. Signs arouse curiosity but not mature faith. (Kysar, John (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 52)The gospel stresses that the rendezvous occurs at night. Daniel B. Wallace (b. 1952) analyzes the case:
Had the evangelist used the dative, the point would have been that Nicodemus came at a particular point in the night. With the genitive, however, the emphasis is in the kind of time in which Nicodemus came to see the Lord. The gospel writer puts a great deal of emphasis on dark vs. light; the genitive for time highlights it here. In the least we can say that Nicodemus is not cast in a good light (contrast John 19:39)! (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 123-24)The inclusion of this detail invites the question as to why the Pharisee chooses to call at night. Though the text does not state his reasons, many theories have been posited. Most have seen the observation as more than just a temporal reference to establish the setting or evidence that Nicodemus is too consumed by his own ministry to visit during the day.
Some suggest that night was the typical time for scribal discussion (Str-B 2, 419-20). The Jews at Qumran spent one-third of every night studying their beliefs (1QS 6:7). While nighttime learning might have been commonplace, this rationale does not fit John’s context.
Others note the prudence of the after hours visit. In meeting Jesus at night, Nicodemus avoids the crowds which provides the opportunity for a longer, more uninterrupted conversation. It also insures privacy and an intimacy that fosters an honest, real conversation free from the political pressures that an audience and their respective positions might yield. Coming at night breaks down barriers and facades that come with a public meeting.
Many have suspected rational self interest as the reason for Nicodemus’ timing: he did not want to lose professional credibility by openly identifying with Jesus. The cover of darkness shields him from the temple authorities. His colleagues would not understand why a member of the educated elite would seek out an itinerant preacher, much less lose an argument to him. This explanation parallels king Zedekiah seeking a private audience with the imprisoned prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 37:16-21). Were he discovered, Nicodemus would have a lot of explaining to do and likely need to answer far more questions from his peers than he asks of Jesus. In short, associating with Jesus is a bad career move for Nicodemus and unlike Jesus’ disciples, he is unwilling to risk everything for the radical preacher (Matthew 19:27-29; Mark 10:28-30; Luke 18:28-29).
Some have seen embarrassment as the issue behind the nighttime meeting as this timing provides secrecy (John 19:38). Nicodemus is uncomfortable in Jesus’ presence, treating Jesus like the guilty pleasure CD that you enjoy but do not play when your peers are present. Even today, many professors (people expected to have answers) do not wish to be seen asking questions. According to some, Nicodemus simply does not wish to be seen with Jesus.
Some have interpreted Nicodemus as sincere, but cautious. He is a reluctant seeker who is not yet ready for public support, instead wishing to administer an honest examination before making a public profession. Part of Nicodemus wants to believe and he at least gives the itinerant preacher the time of night.
In a similar vein, J. Louis Martyn (b. 1925) has postulated a “two-level” hypothesis whereby Nicodemus is representative of a group of “secret believers” who cloak their allegiance to Christ (Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 113). Others also conceal their affiliations and Nicodemus is an exemplary of a more open element of the Pharisees (John 12:42, 19:38; Acts 5:34-39). For Martyn, Nicodemus symbolizes both this group’s belief that Jesus could be the long awaited wonder working Mosaic prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15-18) and their fear of being cast out of the synagogue for that belief (John 9:22, 34, 12:42, 16:2).
Herman N. Ridderbos (1909-2007) counters:
One must guard against inferring from the fact that Nicodemus went to Jesus by night that he represents a certain type of faith, namely that of the “secret believers,” a typology that is supposed to govern unfavorably his conduct from one end of the Gospel to the other. In the “two-level” theory the “figure” of Nicodemus even develops into an entire class of secret believers in the later synagogue with a “midrashic” christology of their own...The entire notion that in the Fourth Gospel Nicodemus represents the model of the crypto-believer in which the definitive break between synagogue and church is mirrored lacks support in the texts. Whatever moved Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night...it was certainly not that in secret he had already in some way committed himself to faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, 283)
Many have seen the reference to night as reflecting Nicodemus’ spiritual condition; the outer darkness resonates with Nicodemus’ inner lightlessness. The polarity between light and darkness is a prominent theme in John’s gospel. Jesus is introduced (and as such has already been described) as light (John 1:4-5, 8).
In contrast, elsewhere in the gospel, night appears to have negative associations (John 9:4, 11:10, 13:30). Traitorous Judas is the only other character in John’s story who appears at night (John 13:30). Colin G. Kruse (b. 1938) illumines:
Elsewhere in the Gospel the word ‘night’ appears to have negative connotations. In John 9:4 Jesus urges people to work in the ‘day’, for the ‘night’ is coming when no-one can work. In John 11:10 he says that those who walk in the ‘night’ stumble because they have no light. In John 13:30, after receiving the bread from Jesus’ hand, Judas went out into the ‘night’ to betray him. Bearing these things in mind, the statement in John 3:2 that Nicodemus came ‘by night’ suggests he was in a state of spiritual darkness when he approached Jesus. (Kruse, John (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 104-105)Gail R. O’Day (b. 1954) adds:
In a gospel that from its opening verses emphasizes the contrast between light and darkness (John 1:4-5), this reference to the time of Nicodemus’s visit is more than an incidental detail. The visit under the cloak of darkness strikes a discordant note with the description of Nicodemus’ status in John 3:1. As a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, Nicodemus is a public figure, but he does not come to Jesus publicly. Nicodemus’s night visit suggests that he wants to hide himself, and thus introduces a note of tension into the narrative. That Nicodemus comes in darkness points to possible tension between Nicodemus and the community with whom his credentials so tightly link him, but also indicates possible tension between Nicodemus and Jesus. (O’Day, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John, 16-17)Gerald L. Borchert (b. 1932) concludes:
Although seasonal and day/night designations can properly be understood as time notations in this Gospel, they usually are more importantly also symbolic representations of the spiritual temperature of the people in the story (e.g., John 10:22-23, 11:9-10, 13:30). As indicated in the Prologue, light and darkness are conceived as opposing principles (John 1:4-5) with darkness in John illustrating the negative aspects such as the realm of Satan, error, evil, doubt, and unbelief. Some interpreters might suggest that Nicomedus came to Jesus “at night” (John 3:2) to prevent detection or alternatively that (as an intense rabbi) he studies late into the night, but most commentators are agreed that the reference to night is a picture of a man who was in an uneasy state of unbelief or doubt. (Borchert, John 1-11 (New American Commentary), 170)In contrast to Jesus being light itself, Nicodemus, whom the world perceives as enlightened, is in the dark. In seeking Jesus, a man in darkness is taking his first steps into the light.
Nicodemus’ inner conflict is understandable on many levels. Whatever his reasons, it can be certain that Nicodemus sought Jesus when it was best for him, not best for Jesus. Like most of us, Nicodemus insists on meeting Jesus on his own terms.
Even so, it is a miracle that Nicodemus comes at all. All of the reasons for him to come at night are also reasons not to make the trip altogether. Even if not walking in the light, Nicodemus appears open minded as he investigates Jesus as opposed to taking the easier route of making a blanket rejection. He is independent enough to take the risk of pursuing Jesus. At the very least, he makes a significant movement toward believing the one sent to make God known (John 1:11-14). He may be in the dark, but Nicodemus is open to the light.
Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) comments:
Hartwig Thyen [b. 1927]...noticed that initially Nicodemus came to Jesus by night (John 3:1), but at least he came, and Jesus promised that “whoever came” to him he would in no way cast aside (John 6:37); thus Nicodemus had in fact “come to the light” and received its promise (John 3:21). (Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 500)Why does Nicodemus visit Jesus at night? What does it say about Jesus that he is willing to meet with Nicodemus at night? What is the latest anyone has visited your home? What are the advantages of coming at night? How would the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus have looked differently had their been witnesses (John 3:1-21)? Are you more apt to be honest and revealing in private or public? Why? When do you get a more authentic response from a minister: in front of a crowd or in private? Who do you not wish to be seen with? Do you have any guilty pleasures? Whose disapproval motivates you? When have you encountered Jesus at night? What risk do you take when following Jesus? Can one be a secret disciple of Jesus? When do you seek Jesus?
Nicodemus becomes a recurring character in John’s gospel and while the fate of his faith is not stated explicitly, there are hints (John 7:50, 19:39). He is later seen defending Jesus before his peers (John 7:50-51) and preparing Jesus for burial (John 19:36-40). Even so, his initial timidity is never forgotten. The last time that he is referenced, he is remembered as the one “who had first come to Him by night” (John 19:39 NASB), perhaps providing hope for those who are still seeking Jesus by night.
Critics note that Nicodemus never professes faith, he only asks questions (John 3:4, 9). Even when he reappears, though well-intentioned, he appears diffident. In preparing Jesus for burial, he plays a secondary role to Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:39). These factors have led many to doubt that Nicodemus possesses the conviction to make a stand for Jesus. Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) characterizes Nicodemus as a “man who is drawn to the light but not yet able to leave the darkness (Newbigin, The Light has Come: an Exposition of the Fourth Gospel, 37).”
Gregory Stevenson (b. 1966) appraises:
Does Nicodemus belong to the darkness?...Ultimately, Nicodemus is an ambiguous figure. He is not blind, but his vision is not so great either. He remains distracted by his religious position. Nicodemus sees enough to come to Jesus, to stand up for him, and to help with burial preparations, but not enough to come fully into the light. He exists in the twilight, caught between day and night. (David Fleer[b. 1953] and Dave Bland [b. 1953], “Believing is Seeing: The Dynamics of Faith in the Gospel of John”, Preaching John’s Gospel: The World It Imagines, 113-114)How would you characterize Nicodemus? Does he belong more to the light or the night? What does Nicodemus do wrong? What does he do right? Have you stepped into the light or are you lingering in the darkness?
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” (John 8:12, NASB)