John 2:23-25 & 3:1-4 — The Savior and Nicodemus becoming friends (part 1) — LeGrand Baker

I read the conversation between the Savior and Nicodemus as a very intimate, deeply encoded, intensely personal account of how Jesus and Nicodemus became close friends. {1}

John treats this conversation as sacred. For that reason he gives us just barely enough information that we can follow what was being said, but not enough that people who do not know the plan of salvation will be able to plumb its depths. He does that frequently in his writing, usually with the marker, “he who has ears let him hear.” The code he uses is the language of the ancient temple drama. {2}

Because Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord is about the Israelite temple drama, in some ways the book can be read as a key to the ancient temple code. So I am using the ideas in the book to decode the story of Nicodemus. In other words, I am using my opinions to support my opinions, and I leave it to you to decide if that has value.

Of the gospels, only John tells us about Nicodemus. After the account of his first meeting Jesus, John mentions him twice more. The first of those shows that Nicodemus was a man of considerable influence. John tells us that he was “a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.” That is, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish senate. This story is about a meeting of the Sanhedrin in which Nicodemus used his knowledge of the law to deflate an attack on Jesus and his followers. He reminded the Jewish leaders that their law said they could not condemn Jesus on hearsay evidence, and they had not heard for themselves what he taught.

32 The Pharisees heard that the people murmured such things concerning him; and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take him
…………
45 Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him?
46 The officers answered, Never man spake like this man.
47 Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived?
48 Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?
49 But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.
50 Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,)
51 Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?
52 They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.
53 And every man went unto his own house (John 7:32-53).

The second shows that Nicodemus was a man of great wealth, and perhaps even greater courage. Pilate was a scoundrel of the first order. He fleeced the people to fill his own pockets. The Jews hated him and eventually got him deposed. Now consider the situation. One does not just go visit the Roman procurator and ask for a favor. To get to Pilate they would have to bribe the under secretary, bribe the secretary, and be prepared to give a huge bribe to Pilate.

The story does not say Nicodemus was there to talk to Pilate, but it does say that at the burial he “brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.” That was a lot, and very expensive.

38 And after this Joseph of Arimathæ a, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.
39 And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
40 Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.
41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
42 There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand (John 19:38-42).

Tensions were very high. The Jews knew of the prophecy that Jesus would rise from the dead and wanted to control what happened to his body. It is likely that Joseph of Arimathæ a and Nicodemus both put their lives on the line to approach Pilate, remove Jesus’s body from the cross, and put it in the tomb. Matthew describes that tension.

62 Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,
63 Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.
64 Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.
65 Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.
66 So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch (Matthew 27:62-66).

Nicodemus’s actions were not those of a “secret” follower, but those of a man who knew who he was, and what he believed, and who was not ashamed to support his friend.
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The following story is one of my favorites in the New Testament because it lets us watch as Jesus and Nicodemus become friends.

John lays the background of the story by contrasting the way Jesus responded to people who came to see him only out of curiosity, as opposed to the way Jesus responded to Nicodemus. About the curiosity seekers John says,

23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.
24 But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men,
25 And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man (John 2:23-25).

John says that Jesus’s attitude was that he was willing to let the people see what they wished to see. If being entertained by miracles was all they were interested in, then that was all they would see. He would not let them know who he was, or by what authority he did those miracles.

John says Jesus knew in advance how they would respond to him because he knew who they were. He could read their souls, so he “needed not that any should testify of man”

That is the key to this whole story. The footnote in our Bible says that “commit” might have been translated “entrust.” The Greek word for entrust is a form of pistis, so the idea of covenant is at least implicitly part of what John is trying to tell us. President David O. McKay explained why it was impossible for those people to hide from the Savior who they really were.

Every man and every person who lives in this world wields an influence, whether for good or for evil. It is not what he says alone; it is not alone what he does. It is what he is. Every man, every person radiates what he or she really is. Every person is a recipient of radiation. The Savior was conscious of that. Whenever He came into the presence of an individual, He sensed that radiation — whether it was the woman of Samaria with her past life: whether it was the woman who was to be stoned, or the men who were to stone her; whether it was the statesman, Nicodemus, or one of the lepers. He was conscious of the radiation from the individual. And to a degree so are you. and so am I. It is what we are and what we radiate that affects the people around us (President David O. McKay, “Radiation of the Individual,” The Instructor, October, 1964, 373).

With that assurance that the Savior never revealed himself except to those whom he knew he could trust, John tells the story of Nicodemus.

He came “by night.” Most scholars assume that he was afraid of being seen, but he does not show that fear in anything else we know about him. I think it much more likely that it was because he knew he would be able to speak to Jesus privately, after the curiosity seekers had all gone home and gone to bed.

1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him (John 3:1-2).

Nicodemus appears to have introduced himself to Jesus by saying the very thing that would have disqualified him from receiving Jesus testimony. “…for no man can do these miracles that thou doest…” But Jesus knew his heart, so the words were not the things by which he was judged.

After that introduction, John writes, “Jesus answered and said unto him.” Something is missing there. John does not give us the question that evoked that answer, nor, indeed, does he tell us much of what was said thereafter. That leaves us to ask, why did John give us only snippets of the conversation? I’m convinced John carefully gives us just enough of the conversation that we can know what ideas were discussed—but only just enough that we cannot know if we do not already know. To do that, John wrote in the code of the ancient Israelite temple drama.

So the first thing we hear Jesus saying is answering a question that is unspoken in our text.

3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

Often, in the scriptures, we have questions without answers, but here we have an answer without a question. The way we almost always read that scripture is that one must be baptized and receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost to see the kingdom of God. Since those principles are absolutely true (and as Nephi suggests, we should “liken all scriptures unto us” – 1 Nephi 19:23), using the scripture that way is perfectly valid and perfectly correct.

Several years ago a missionary from France was serving in the Provo Utah Mission. (His first name is Matthew, but since I have not asked him if I can tell this story, I am not going to tell you his last name.) He is a very dear friend. He let one of his investigators read something I had written and the investigator called and invited me to come to his baptism. I sat in the audience beside Matthew during the service. Matthew gave an excellent talk about the importance of baptism and of listening to the prompting of the Holy Ghost, and he used John 3:3 as his text. He returned to his seat, smiled at me and asked, “How did I do?” “Wonderful!” I replied. We each knew that there is another way to understand what the Savior said to Nicodemus. And we each knew that the way Matthew had used that scripture was exactly the way he should have used it.

The distinguished scholar, Frederick H. Borsch saw that there was something left out, and explained, at least part, what Jesus really said:

Of much more interest to us is the water imagery of the Gospel along with some of its associations. Let us look first at Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in John 3:1ff. and the discussion there about entering the Kingdom of God. Here one of the key words is [words written in Greek]. This adverb has two primary meanings, ‘from above’ and ‘anew’, but the former has predominance. This is true in the New Testament as well as in other literature, and, more importantly, in John, where, outside this passage, ‘from above’ is the meaning. The whole force of the culmination of this passage (3:13) along with the use of the word in 3:31 strongly suggest that ‘being born from above: is the primary sense intended in 3:3, 7. Yet it is probably just as obvious that Nicodemus, understands it as ‘anew’ when he asks Jesus, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Almost surely, then, we are dealing with Johannine irony. Not only does Nicodemus misunderstand [words written in Greek], but he fails to understand the mode of the birth which Jesus is describing. (Frederick Houk Borsch, The Son of Man in Myth and History (London, SCM Press, 1967, 270)

That is as far as Borsch could go. He recognizes that there is much more to the conversation than John reported, but like many scholars, he does not know the ancient temple, therefore, cannot know the temple code, and therefore, is left to assume that Nicodemus (like himself) does not understand what Jesus is talking about.

Nicodemus was a scholar. Jesus reminded him of what he already knew when he asked, “Art thou a master [teacher] of Israel, and knowest not these things?” While surprised at what Jesus was saying, he surely would have understood what Jesus said. Still, the sacred drama of Solomon’s temple with its coronation rites had not been performed for 600 years—not since the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. Nicodemus’s next question reflects his amazement that the Savior would suggest those ordinances might be performed again. So he asks for clarification, and does it in a silly way (typical of some scholars). His intent seems to be to challenge Jesus to see if he really knew what he is talking about.

4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? (John 3:4)

There are two ways to read that. The usual way is to assume that Nicodemus did not know and thought that Jesus had just said something stupid. The second way – the way I think is a necessary introduction to the rest of the story – is that Nicodemus did understand and wanted to know if Jesus was really saying what he thought he was saying. His question implies the larger questions: what, how, and why. The Savior, who understood Nicodemus’s motives, answered all those questions.

END OF PART ONE

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FOOTNOTES

{1} Most scholars read the story of Nicodemus as Jesus’s chiding an unbelieving Jew. Here is a typical example:

[Nicodemus’s name] appears in the Bible only as the name of a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who came at night to talk with Jesus (John 3:1 ff). He was not only a “ruler of the Jews,” but a teacher as well (vs. 2). In fact, the presence of the definite article in the Greek text of John’s Gospel-” the teacher” – points to his pre-eminence as a teacher, and therefore as one who should have known the truth about God and his people. But the course of his conversation with Jesus shows that he did not understand the basic truths about the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and as such should have had interest in and knowledge about the coming of the kingdom, but Jesus’ answers to his questions are more provocative than explanatory, and make him appear as a symbol of Israel’s spiritual blindness. [The rest of the article continues to assert that John used Nicodemus as an example of the unbelieving Jews.] (Interpreter’’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. plus a Supplementary Volume. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962, 3:547).

{2} Much of the New Testament is written in a temple code, and its authors tell us so over and over again. The phrase the Savior uses is “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15, 13:9-17; Mark 4:9; Mark 7:16; Luke 8:8; Luke 14:35.) The gospel of John does not use that phrase, but it quotes the Savior as saying: “they that hear shall live (John 5:25-31)”; “He that is of God heareth God’s words (John 8:47)”; and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:27).” However, in his letters to the churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, John uses a variant of the Savior’s phrase many times. In the surface text, those chapters are seven unrelated letters to seven churches. But in the encoded sub-text they are a colophon in which John identifies himself as one who really knows. If we read only the first half of each of John’s letters, he walks us through an encoded version of the New Testament temple drama. If we read only the second half of each, he tells us why it is important. He alerts us to what he is doing by repeating over and over again, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.”

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