Nicodemus, The Silent Believer

John 19:38-42 (and other selected verses from the Gospel of John) Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

It’s strangely liberating to have nothing to lose. I know a guy who used to struggle with alcoholism. He couldn’t see it or understand it for years, but he was an alcoholic. He went about his life mostly in the bag and wrecking relationships along the way. He had a wife who had given up on him, a mother who was frightened of him, and friends who had checked out on him. One night, he headed to the bar like he always did and as he sat there alone with his bottle the weight of years of abuse crashed in on him and he hit his bottom. He came to realize he had nothing more to lose. That’s when he finally joined a recovery group. There’s something about having nothing to lose that frees us to get bold in life and make a needed change.

That’s the idea that captured John. And in Nicodemus he found his perfect illustration. Nicodemus was the man who seemed to have everything. He had Bible knowledge. Loads of it. He, after all, was a Pharisee. And he had position - the highest kind. He was a ruler in the Sanhedrin, a sort of Jewish Supreme Court. Nicodemus had it all. He was living the life. Could this man who seemed to have everything make an important spiritual change?

And so Nicodemus becomes for John an incredible case study. We have to understand what John is up to here. John writes much later than the other Gospel writers. The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were already out for years. And it’s not like they were missing any important content. The life and times of Jesus were in those Gospels in all their mind-bending, horrifying, and beautiful detail. All of it. But they don’t mention Nicodemus. Not once. But John does. Understand something. That’s not just a fun fact meant only for Bible trivia events. It’s showing us that John sees a wound within Christianity to which Nicodemus ministers. It’s not like Matthew, Mark, and Luke hadn’t heard of Nicodemus. They most certainly had. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had access to the same information, but John is the only one who uses the story. Why John? John writes years later. He watched Christianity and Christians develop and he sees that we need Nicodemus’ story.

And just so we’re clear, it’s not only so that we’d have John chapter three. That’s an important part of it, but it’s not the only part. If it were only about chapter three, then Nicodemus wouldn’t have been named and he wouldn’t have been brought back up later in John. There are plenty of occasions when the Gospel writers don’t provide names, but John does here. And not just a name, he also provides timing. And he does this on three different occasions in John. Three! He just won’t let this whole Nicodemus scenario go. He begins his Gospel with it. He brings it back toward the middle of his Gospel and then he ends his Gospel with it. Just track with me through the book. This is from chapter three: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night…” (v. 1-2) Then John comes back in chapter seven and writes, Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked…” (v. 50) Then after Jesus dies you have this history in chapter nineteen, “He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.” (v. 39)

Now you tell me. Why does John do that? Is John the vindictive apostle who is never going to let Nicodemus live down his fears? Is he the kind of person who will never let Nicodemus forget the cowardice he showed by visiting Jesus at night? I think we all realize that’s not what John’s up to here. What John means to do is to showcase God’s work. Nicodemus is one of his finest. Seriously he is. Nicodemus is a gem of spiritual reconditioning or of spiritual growth. It’s a beautiful thing. So each time, John mentions Nicodemus he also gives us Nicodemus’ reference point, his baseline. He’s saying to us, “This is the same guy. This is where Nicodemus started and this is how far God brought him as his faith grew.”

It is stunning how far down the path of Christian maturity God moved Nicodemus. There’s his baseline. He started by coming to Jesus secretly and quietly under the cover of darkness. Because he had to? No. He was a top dog. He was a member of the Sanhedrin. He had options, but he didn’t schedule a daytime appointment. He had too much to lose. He was afraid of losing his position. He was afraid of losing the respect of his peers. He had way too much to lose.

In our next Nicodemus sighting, we still find him battling his fears. This time his fellow leaders are raging at the people listening to Jesus only because they “know nothing of the law” and they’re breathing fire at the temple guards who wouldn’t arrest Jesus. And that’s when we watch Nicodemus edge toward the line of fire with this question: “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” (v. 51) Not too bad. Nicodemus was growing. He was willing to ask a tough question for Jesus, but not yet ready to make a clear statement. He tried to redirect the fire breathing, but he wasn’t yet ready to step into its path. He still had too much to lose.

And Nicodemus’ fear ends up having tragic consequences. The same council that Nicodemus sat on ruled on Jesus. They condemned him to death. I’m sure Nicodemus wasn’t happy about it, but his fear ends up making him an accomplice to deicide. Homicide is one thing. Deicide, or God murder, is another. By his silence and cowardice, Nicodemus became an accomplice in the ultimate crime - killing God. He watched it play out right before his eyes. It was after Jesus’ crucifixion that Nicodemus finally changed. He got bold. He stated his belief, and he grew in Christian maturity. It’s this change that we want to understand better.

You might think it was the guilt that drove him. You might think it was the shame that finally gave him the willpower and the nerve to break free of his cowardice. You might think it was doubled down inner conviction that allowed him to vanquish his inner demons and be bold for Jesus. That’s what you might think. You might even think that that’s what the rest of this sermon is about. You might be thinking to yourself, “I totally know where this one is going. The pastor is going to pound on us a while about how silent we’ve been about Jesus. That’s how we’ll finally get it through our thick skulls how bad it is. Maybe that’ll actually help us change.” And I suppose God could’ve done that with Nicodemus and with us, but he doesn’t.

He had every right to. I still remember being so embarrassed of my Dad. He was always such a loose cannon about Jesus when I was growing up. I’d never know when Jesus would come flying out. I remember once we were at the grocery store and the clerk made a comment about the food we were buying and immediately my Dad went into an extended doxology about the goodness of God in providing such a feast. It’s moments like that that the Apostle John must’ve been thinking about. He must’ve seen our inner Nicodemus who can be so small inside, so scared of losing what’s ours, and so fearful of what people might think of us. He must’ve seen that because he gave us silent Nic in his Gospel. He gave us a man who was afraid of rejection by his peers and of losing his position. He gave us a man who went at truth sideways ish or not at all. He gave us a man who hedged and hid, who would rather talk about the weather or the latest NFL scandal than breathe a word about his Savior. He gave us Nicodemus.

And he did it not to pile on, but to forgive. He did it not to guilt us into a better obedience, but to inspire us to it. He did it not to get us to push past our fears of rejection, but to rid us of them. Christianity is not a place to come to get relentlessly pounded until we finally get it right. Christianity is not place that has its endgame in helping people come to grips with the nastiness of sin so that we’ll finally decide to stop. Christianity is not a place that finds its ultimate joy in telling people you’ll lose everything if you don’t change. Christianity is the place to come to find out that we’ve been given everything despite the fact that we haven’t changed. Christianity is the place to relentlessly hear of Jesus.

That’s what Nicodemus found out and it’s also what changed him. It wasn’t pounding guilt that got him. It was the pounding of Jesus’ nails. It wasn’t the coming to grips with sin that finally did it. It was the coming to grips with the death of Jesus. Nicodemus watched Jesus hang on that cross. He heard Jesus say, “Father, forgive them.” He watched the centurion get it and go public saying, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” He heard about and perhaps witnessed the tearing of the temple curtain, the earthquake, and the resurrections that happened at the moment of Jesus’ death. And through it all, Nicodemus learned truth. Nicodemus learned that God isn’t about naming and shaming the people who aided and abetted his deicide; he’s about releasing them from that guilt. That’s what changed Nicodemus. That’s what did it. Nicodemus became convinced that with a God like Jesus he had nothing to lose.

If you think about it, that’s exactly what happened inside Nicodemus. He was letting Christ’s crucifixion help him understand the rest of his life. He was thinking it through. He was understanding, “If Christ would go to all the trouble of forgiving me my accessory to deicide charges, then what will he not do for me with his grace and power?” That idea drove away his fears. Nicodemus could lose could lose his seat in the Sanhedrin because he knew he had gained a seat in the throne room of God. He could lose a close friend if he had to because he knew he would never lose the faithfulness of his God. Do you see it? Christ’s crucifixion taught Nicodemus that he had nothing to lose that truly mattered.

So he goes public in a huge way. Here’s what John tells us, “Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.” (v. 38-39) Understand how public this was. This wasn’t normal burial procedure. That’s why they had to go get special permission. Not to mention that they had to get special permission from Pilate. Who knows who Pilate would talk to. It was a risky, ambitious move for these guys and not at all private. They went and asked for the most politically and religiously toxic body ever to grace the face of the earth. And formerly fearful Nic did that with a knapsack of 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. Believe me. You can’t just hide 75-pounds of that stuff inside a big coat. Nicodemus got out into the world big and bold for Jesus.

That’s the story of Nicodemus. He stands there on the pages of the Gospel of John as one of God’s finest works, an incredible example of spiritual development in the Bible. John curated and developed all of the material that he put in his Gospel and he just had to put Nicodemus in with it. Do you see why yet? There’s too much power there. We can’t be confronted with the cowardice and the grace, the sin and the forgiveness of this history and not be changed. You just can’t. You can’t look up and not be changed when you see Jesus be everything and understand that we literally have nothing to lose. That’s how Nic at night became the Nicodemus who strapped a 75-pound knapsack to his back to deal with Jesus’ body.  He had been freed. You have been too. There are bolder conversations to have. There are better blogs to share and write. There are relationships to fill with more truth. There are Facebook statuses to update and people to reach. And we’re going to do it because with a God like Jesus we have nothing to lose. Amen.

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