He came by night, a most unusual proceeding for any man in that day, least of all a public figure and a Pharisee. There was no night life in those times, not even in metropolitan Jerusalem. As soon as the sun disappeared below the horizon and the swift darkness descended, never much later than six o’clock, work ceased and all good men retired into their houses, barred their doors, and remained there until the morning. Only thieves and robbers and a few homeless beggars were to be found in the open after that; in walking through the silent streets in the dark, Nicodemus was taking a decided risk and his motives might well be questioned should he fall in with one of the city watchmen. And it was quite unnecessary; Jesus was always accessible and Nicodemus would have had no difficulty in effecting a meeting and conversation with him during daylight hours. But he came by night.
There would seem little doubt that Nicodemus did not want his contact with the prophet from Nazareth to come under the notice of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin, the highest ecclesiastical court in the land. He was not only a Pharisee but also a member of that august body and apparently held high office therein. For that very reason his movements and contacts would attract more notice than those of lesser men; much as he wanted to talk with Jesus he did not wish his interest to be generally known. The risks and inconvenience of a nocturnal visit did not weigh so heavily with him as the possible consequences of a day‑time call. So he came by night.
It is not said of Nicodemus, as it was said of Joseph of Arimathea, that he was "a disciple...but secretly for fear of the Jews," (John 19:38). At this particular time he was not a disciple at all—still an enquirer. But his attitude was probably much the same as that of Joseph. Both were highly respected members of the ruling class and both had much to lose if their interest in or connection with the Galilean prophet became known—the High Priest, President of the Sanhedrin, would see to that. It might be felt, to the detriment of these two, that other prominent and influential men had openly shown their leaning to Jesus or espousal of his mission without taking any such precautions. Simon the Pharisee, Jairus the ruler of the synagogue, the centurion whose servant was healed, Joanna the wife of Chuza the steward of King Herod’s court; all these made no secret of their association with Jesus. It is true, however, that all these were in Galilee or elsewhere, remote from Jerusalem, whereas Nicodemus and Joseph were in Jerusalem where the situation was markedly different from that in the north. Perhaps we should not be too uncharitable towards Nicodemus in his caution and lack of faith.
Even so, the brief glimpses we have of him in the Gospels do seem to picture a man timid rather than confident, not at all sure about the prophet who had taken his interest, not inclined to risk his reputation and his position by an open avowal of discipleship, and yet conscious that there was something in the message which found a responsive chord in the thoughts of his own heart and bid fair (seems probably) to satisfy some of his own unanswered questions. In short, Nicodemus might well have been very much like so many of us, not favoured with the courage and persistence of a Paul nor yet the outspoken aggressiveness of a Peter, nevertheless desiring in our hearts that in all things we might be more like Christ and serve him all our days.
Two and a half years later Nicodemus was still not ready for an open avowal. When, at the Feast of Tabernacles six months before the Crucifixion, the Sanhedrin had sent the Temple guard in an ineffectual attempt to arrest Jesus, and sat debating their failure, his voice was raised in Jesus’ defence but only in a mild and half‑hearted manner. "Doth our law judge any man" he queried "before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" (John.7:51). Even that was too much for the arch‑plotters. "Art thou also of Galilee?" they enquired sarcastically; "Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet!" In their arrogance they betrayed their ignorance of their own Scriptures, for at least one prophet, Jonah, did come from Gath‑hepher in Galilee, and some of Israel’s greatest heroes, like Barak and Gideon, arose from that part of the country. It was not until the final tragedy that Nicodemus roused himself sufficiently to pay belated honours to the Lord whom he undoubtedly reverenced, when he joined with Joseph of Arimathea in effecting the entombment of Jesus, so saving his body from the unceremonious treatment usually accorded to executed criminals. He took his stand then, regardless of consequences, for the priestly fraternity were not likely to overlook this deliberate act of honour to the man they sought by every possible means to vilify and discredit and eventually encompass his death. From that time and forward it is virtually certain that Nicodemus was numbered among the avowed believers in Christ now formed into a definite community under the leadership of the Twelve.
Despite this apparent early Luke‑warmness, there must have been something in Nicodemus which Jesus recognised as pure gold, something which, although overlaid with Pharisaic prejudices and inhibited by reluctance to risk loss of standing in his own circle, was capable of responding to the Gospel, for to him Jesus imparted some of his most profound themes. Here in the record of the conversation between these two on that quiet night lie embedded some of the basic principles of the Divine call of this Age—what St. Paul was later to term the "High Calling of God in Christ Jesus". It is probable that at first he saw Jesus only as a prophet, somewhat in the line of the Hebrew prophets of old, able like some of them to perform miracles of healing and the like, and imbued with a burning message of reproof and encouragement as were they. It is not likely that at first he connected Jesus with the Messiah for whose coming he, with all Jews, looked. But Jesus must have seen in him the seeds of what could afterwards flower into definite understanding and acceptance of his Messiahship and on this account told him things he admittedly could not understand at the time but assuredly did later on.
First of all came the Lord’s quiet insistence "Ye must be born again". (John 3:7) This theme has been taken up and made into a cardinal tenet by some sections of the Church and the expression "a born‑again Christian" is by no means unknown today. Some renderings suggest that the meaning is really "born from above" and it is said that the Greek can bear either meaning. But really it means to be born afresh, anew, from a new beginning, in the same sense in which Paul (2 Cor.5:17) declares that if any man be in Christ he is a new creation; old things are passed away and all things are become new. The idea behind the expression is that when one comes into Christ, by dedication or consecration of life to him, life commences anew by virtue of the power of the Holy Spirit; this in Scripture is spoken of as being begotten or born of the Spirit to a new life in Christ, which comes to full birth, or maturity, at the resurrection into the heavenly realm to be with Christ. Nicodemus, of course, could make nothing of this; trained as he was in the legalistic formulae of the Mosaic Law he could visualise the consummation of the Divine purpose only in terms of a reformed and righteous Israel maintaining that Law in its entirety and so claiming the right to rule the nations as predicted by the prophets. The idea of a rebirth into a new kind of life and another world, the spiritual, was quite foreign to him and he could make nothing of it.
By way of leading his thinking into right paths Jesus then indicated that something more than the Mosaic Law was necessary for entrance into eternal life. Nicodemus was familiar with the baptism by water—John the Baptist’s call to repentance and ceremonial cleansing, with its attendant immersion in water as symbol of that cleansing, was well known to him and he might even himself have submitted to baptism at the hands of John and counted himself in full accord with God’s purposes thereby. But Jesus had to tell him this was not enough, he must go on from repentance and sincerity to a full yielding of self to Christ, association with him in all that He stood for, full consecration of life and talents and all to his service, in expectation of eternal union with him in the life to come. So, said Jesus, he must be baptized, not only by water, but also by the Spirit, to come into that relationship with God. "Except a man be born of water AND of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God". (John 3:5) It is possible that Nicodemus could not make much of this either, at least at that time in his experience; it is certainly true that many who have sincerely accepted Christ in times since have never come to that understanding, and their Christian lives have been lived on the level of acceptance of his teaching and ethics, but not on that of unity and association with him.
The third important principle followed naturally from the first two but it had to be defined. There are two natures, fleshly and spiritual, and two worlds, terrestrial and celestial. Nicodemus knew only of one, and until he could be made aware of the other he would never enter into a real understanding of Jesus’ mission and the call of the Gospel. "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 every one that is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8). The wind as an illustration of the power of the invisible Spirit is apt enough, but in fact Jesus does not seem to have been talking about the wind. This is the only occasion out of three hundred and seventy occurrences in the New Testament where "pneuma" is translated "wind". In all other cases it is "spirit". In fact the Greek word for "wind" is "anemos" and so occurs thirty‑one times. "Bloweth" is better "breatheth" and "sound" is "voice" (phone). What Jesus really said to Nicodemus was "the Spirit breatheth where it desires and thou hearest its voice, but canst not tell…" etc. Nicodemus was accustomed to trusting in the mechanical righteousness conferred by observance and sacrifice, the vision of God seen in the miracles and outward works and material evidences of Divine power. Jesus had to tell him that none of these things had any place in the world of the spirit, that good as they were in their own sphere, there was another in which the power of the Spirit was the motive force, the voice of the Spirit the channel of instruction, the world of the Spirit the ultimate goal, and only the spiritual senses could be receptive to these things. Just as his earthly mind and body was attuned and adapted to this terrestrial sphere, so by the power of the Spirit manifested in a new birth and new life must he expect a new mind and, eventually, a new body attuned and adapted to the celestial. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (v.6)
And, of course, Nicodemus comprehended nothing of all this. "How can these things be?" (v.9) he asked helplessly. Came the grave and mildly reproachful reply "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?" (v.10) Far less learned and educated men than he, fishermen and peasants and tax collectors, were already in a fair way to understanding, but that was because these had given themselves to Jesus and devoted their lives to him. Nicodemus knew too much of the Mosaic Law, too much of the traditions of the Talmud, too much of the wisdom of this world, easily to comprehend and accept what Jesus was saying. His superior position and knowledge became a handicap when he came into contact with the world of the Spirit.
So Jesus shifted his vantage ground and talked of other things, of faith, of belief, and the love of God which led to the sending of his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth should not perish but have everlasting life because God sent him not to condemn the world but to save it. And he who believes has life already. Far removed was all this from the old theology of Judaism, but perhaps it was in all this that Nicodemus saw the light. We do not know, we are not told, what was the immediate outcome, or in what state of mind Nicodemus wended his way home through the streets that eventful night. But the fact that Jesus took so much trouble with him and talked with him on such profound themes, and perhaps not least that the story is recorded in such detail for the benefit of future generations, maybe justifies the inference that Jesus saw in this man’s mind something which He knew would one day blossom into full discipleship. Perhaps, after all, it did need the miracle of the Resurrection to clarify all the doubts and perplexities and make Nicodemus God’s man for ever, as it did with James and others. Then, if not before, came full illumination on the quiet words spoken by Jesus to the questing man who came to him by night.