Jesus reserved His harshest criticism for the Pharisees, a sect of elite religious fanatics. Jesus unashamedly declared, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside of it may also become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25–28). Seven times in a row Jesus said the same thing. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). A stinging rebuke!
Nicodemus, a leading member of the Pharisees, “came to Jesus at night” (John 3:2), under the cover of darkness, so that none of his buddies would see. He probably didn’t want the rest of the gang thinking that he was going soft.
His approach toward Jesus seemed sincere. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2). He was aware of Jesus’ powerful displays of miracle-working power. He’d likely listened to some of Jesus’ teaching. He was curious, interested.
Jesus’ response was direct. “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “What? Born again? My momma’s old and frail? No way! I can’t enter my momma’s womb again!” Nicodemus was confused, thinking about physical matters – not spiritual truths.
Jesus patiently and compassionately told the religious zealot a story that he well-knew. Jesus said, “Remember when God used poisonous snakes to punish the rebellious Israelites? God instructed Moses to construct a bronze replica of a snake, lash it to a tall pole, and lift it up above the camp. (Numbers 21:4-9). Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Jesus then clarified the necessity of spiritual transformation, this spiritual rebirth. “Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again” (John 3:7). Then Jesus explained the method of this new birth. It is by faith in the crucified and resurrected Savior! Just as the Israelites were saved by faithfully looking toward the bronze serpent, we can be saved by looking to Jesus in faith. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Did Nicodemus believe? Was he saved by grace through faith? Because of his “fear of the Jews” (John 19:38), Nicodemus must have tried to be a closet-Christian. But after the crucifixion of Jesus, “Nicodemus … came bringing a mixture of about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes. They took Jesus’s body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the fragrant spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:39-40). What an extravagant gift! That quantity of spice would have been worth a fortune!
Was Nicodemus, a pharisaical, holier-than-thou, self-righteous hypocrite, born again? I think so. I hope so. Certainly, he became aware of God’s grace demonstrated by the sacrifice of Jesus, the Passover Lamb, lifted up like the bronze serpent for all to faithfully gaze upon. That must have changed his heart… and his eternal destiny! That’s amazing grace!