Was Nicodemus right? Does he sing with angels or howl with demons? It is a question that perplexes me to this day. If I knew the answer, it would illuminate the path of spiritual commitment much more clearly. There are so many extenuating circumstances surrounding this man and what he did. But it is what he didn't do that worries me most. Jesus had said, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Matt. 12:30). It was a "take no prisoners" approach. It left no room for compromise. Nicodemus must have agonized over that. Because from everything we know about him, it appears compromise was his greatest goal.
Jesus walked the earth and asked men to believe His message. Nicodemus was such a man. And he came to Christ one night and told him so. This should have impressed Jesus immensely, it seems to me. Here was a member of the Sanhedrin actually confessing that He was from God. Why didn't Jesus say, "blessed are you Nicodemus, for flesh and blood haven't revealed this to you"? But that is not what He did. Instead, He all but insulted Nicodemus, feeding him riddles which the man couldn't understand. "Are you teacher of Israel," Jesus asks, "and do not understand these things?" (John 3:10).
Yet Nicodemus still believes. Christ's words were persuasive. "Never did a man speak the way this man speaks," explain the soldiers sent to apprehend the Galilean, returning empty handed (John 7:46). But the Pharisees are not impressed. "None of us believe in Him," they say. None, except, perhaps, one. Nicodemus speaks up at a time when a more prudent man would not. The Law, he reminds them, allows a man to defend himself before his accusers. But the others aren't interested in debate. Instead, they insult Nicode-mus, accusing him of being a Galilean. (Roughly the equivalent of being called a Yankee in the South. I imagine.) Nicodemus' attempt at defense served only to lower his own position. In the end all Nicodemus could do for this man from God was see that he was properly embalmed for burial.
Why is this important to me? It is important because I can see what Nicodemus was doing. He was trying to save his own people. He was trying to show them a light they refused to look at. As John says, "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it. He came to His own and those who were his own did not receive him" (John 1:5,11).
Most of us have come to view the Pharisees as villains. They were the ones, after all, who made the biggest push to have Jesus crucified. Yet Paul was a Pharisee among Pharisees, a man who lived with a clean conscience before God (Acts 23:1). Surely they were not all bad. Surely others besides Nicodemus truly felt that a great prophet had come. And for the others, who did not believe, we can at least pay them the condescending compliment of saying they were "sincere.'' But whatever it was - pride, ambition, ignorance, something blinded them from the truth, that could set them free. They remained openly hostile to the end. For them, Jesus was a no good troublemaker who needed to be eliminated as quickly as possible. And there stood Nicodemus in the middle. He could have resigned. He could have given up his worldly possessions and followed the Messiah. He would have been better off spiritually, without a doubt. But for whatever reason, he chose to stick it out. He chose the impossible position of trying to be both a Pharisee and a follower of Christ. It certainly hurt his reputation as a Pharisee, and it may have cost him his soul. It leaves me pondering what to do.
A great many of us have something in common with Nicodemus. We are members of a God-ordained sect, intent upon preserving, defending, and interpreting the Law. Whether that sect is large and complex, such as the Catholic church, or much smaller and simpler, such as the independent Churches of Christ, it probably will deal with troublemakers just like the Pharisees did - the main difference being that modern crucifixions are carried out on pulpits rather than crosses. Organized sects are historically intolerant of change. They are quite satisfied with the way they worship God. They see no need for further truth. Certainly not a truth that comes from outside the hierarchy. And so if you should be so unfortunate as to stumble upon a truth that your sect has somehow failed to grasp, you will soon learn to empathize with Nicodemus. You must then face the same basic dilemma that Nicodemus did. Stay, and try for reform. Or quit and become a revolutionary.
If you stay, it is a largely thankless job. For ever3, one shone the light, it seems a hundred reject it. "See for yourself," they say, "the scriptures say nothing about a prophet from Galilee" (John 7:52). Indeed they did not. And sadly, that half truth satisfied a host, I am sure. Today the half truths of organized religion abound. "See for yourself," they say, "there is nothing wrong with having a church building." And indeed there is not. And on just such a half truth many a great cathedral of lies has been erected. Modern religious institutions are no less impressive, no less formidable, than the Sanhedrin was in Christ's day. Is it naive to think we can change these leviathans? Nicodemus was one of the Seventy and what did he accomplish?
Yet many still feel the call. Constant frustrations and insurmountable odds often cannot outweigh an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Many feel compelled to confess, "Despite all their faults, despite all their sins, they are still my people." God told Ezekial, "I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children and you shall say to them, thus says the Lord God. As for them, whether they listen or not for they are a rebellious they will know that a prophet has been among them" (Ezek. 2:4-5). Sometimes like Ezekial, no success seems to come from the efforts. But shot, Id we quit trying?
The things that go on in the name of Christ today sometimes make me ashamed to say, "I am a Christian." And yet I know it is not the Master's fault. I also know that good dwells in all those souls I meet at the church building. And so although I disagree with many things being said and although sometimes I have to bite my lip to keep myself out of the eye of the storm, for now at least, I have decided to stick it out. Yet deep down, I know full well, this is only a temporary solution. Sooner or later someone is going to put me on the spot (maybe about this article?) and I will have to make a stand. If I would go ahead and make the break, I might save myself some misery. But misery may be part of the price of my calling. It is the only reason to suffer at the hands of people you know and love. Christ must have known that feeling well.
Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold your house is being left to you desolate (Matt. 23:37-38).
I think any honest and intelligent student of Scripture should be able to readily realize that no modern sect of Christianity remotely resembles the disciples of the first century. Of course, sadly, there are many who cannot. Yet still, I am sure that in all these hundreds of denominations good and honest men are perceiving that something is wrong. And in so doing they face the dilemma of Nicodemus.