The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (John 3:1–17) is set in a house in the dark at night, as a prominent named male member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin engages in conversation with a teacher from Nazareth, discussing faith and life. As Jesus engages with him, the conversation moves through a series of phases, going deeper into the issues raised. It’s a carefully-crafted literary piece—as, indeed, are all the encounters that Jesus has in the first half of John’s book of signs.
The conversation proceeds by means of a standard narrative technique: a question is posed, an answer is offered, leading to a further question, another response, and still further question-answer interchanges. This is an age-old technique used in teaching and in story-telling. It was also a standard aspect of the way that teachers of the Law operated in ancient Israel.
So the Pharisee of Jerusalem poses the question to the teacher from Nazareth: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” and follows this immediately with a second question, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4). The reason for such a misunderstanding is that the Greek word used, anōthen, can be understood as “again” or “anew”, but can also be understood as “above”. In fact, “above” is by far the more common sense in which it was used. But the author has the teacher of Nazareth use this word, opening up a deliberate misunderstanding.
This misunderstanding, in turn, lead on to a response from the teacher (3:5) which digs deeper into the issues. Being born “from above” is akin to being born “of water and spirit”—or, it is possible to translate this, “of water and breath”. The Greek word placed on the lips of the teacher, pneuma, can refer to wind or breath—or spirit. Once again, a misunderstanding arises, giving opportunity for further exploration and instruction (3:5–8).
After the response from the teacher, the Pharisee asks a further question, “How can these things be?” (3:9)—to which the teacher from Nazareth responds, in the time honoured fashion (answer a question with another question), “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:9-10). Touché!!
After this, the teacher from Nazareth launches into a longer explanation in response to the questions posed by the Pharisee of Jerusalem—an explanation which continues on for some time (3:11–21), leaving many commentators to wonder, just where does the conversation with the Pharisee from Jerusalem end, and where does the interpretive narrative of the evangelist take over? The Pharisee of Jerusalem has managed to draw from the man from Nazareth a teaching of some substance and significance.
This extended final section of the scene (3:11–21) contains clear evidence of the literary craft of the person who is telling the story. There are typical dualisms included in what the teacher says; he contrasts “earthly things” with “heavenly things”, “ascending into heaven” with “descending from heaven”, “perish” with “eternal life”, “condemn” with “save”—and, once again, “light” and “darkness”, a duality first expressed in the opening verses of the Gospel (1:4–9).
It also sets these dualisms into a pattern of parallel clauses, some of which provide a synonymous parallelism—two similar ideas placed in parallel (3:14; 3:19–20), some of which have antithetical parallelism—two contrasting ideas placed in parallel (3:12; 3:16–17; 3:18; and 3:20–21). Notice that this means that the final three verse of this section have an interweaving of both synonymous and antithetical parallelism, bringing the whole speech to a tight conclusion. “Coming to the light” is what Jesus desires, rather than “loving darkness”.
This is in fact the trajectory that Nicodemus has begun in this passage—the trajectory will continue on beyond into later sections of the Gospel. He has moved from an initial enquiry, through to a deeper pondering about what Jesus is saying. So this conversation has demonstrated a movement from the starting point, through a process that will ultimately lead to a clear expression of faith in in Jesus. We are left wondering, here in chapter 3: has the Pharisee become a disciple of the teacher from Nazareth?
The Pharisee of Jerusalem, we are told later in this Gospel, followed through after his initial conversation with the teacher (John 3)—in fact, he supported him in a debate in the Jerusalem council (John 7), and after the teacher had died, he publicly joined in the task of anointing his body and laying it to rest (John 19). His belief in what this teacher had taught, was now clear for all to see.
The Pharisee of Jerusalem had taken risks, explored his faith, and made significant changes in his life. He is a named high-status follower of Jesus, at least according to this particular Gospel, and his name is remembered throughout Christian history, by believers across the world: Nicodemus.
In the Synoptic Gospels, it is Joseph of Arimathea who requests the body of Jesus from Pilate, and secures a safe place as the resting place for the body. In John’s Gospel, he does this in company with Nicodemus (John 19:39).
Joseph was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51)—a phrase that recalls the discussion reported in John 3 (see verses 3 and 5). This “kingdom of God” was the very same phrase that is key to the preaching of Jesus in Mark and Luke. So Joseph was firmly aligned with Jesus and with his followers in Luke’s Gospel, whilst Matthew directly reports that he was “a disciple of Jesus” (Matt 27:57).
When Nicodemus first encounters Jesus, he had engaged in what might be characterised as an appreciative enquiry with Jesus, under the cover of night (3:2), presumably so that he didn’t “out” his interest in what Jesus was teaching. Some chapters later in John’s narrative, as Jesus experiences intensified opposition whilst in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths (7:1–13), and the Pharisees and temple authorities join forces to send the temple police to arrest him (7:32), Nicodemus appears once more. The temple police return the temple, saying that they will not arrest him (7:45–46).
Nicodemus steps in; he is introduced as the one who “had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them”—that is to say, one of the disciples (7:50). He speaks boldly: “our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). The dismissive reply of the Pharisees further aligns him with Jesus; “surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” is their rejoinder (7:52). His allegiance is clear, at least in the minds of the Pharisees, if not also the narrator of the Gospel.
Nicodemus returns a third time, after the death of Jesus, when the body of Jesus is requested by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is here clearly identified as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38). The fear of the Judean authorities has been a recurrent motif in John’s narrative (5:1; 7:13; 9:22; here, and 20:19). (The term I translate as “Judean authorities” is most commonly rendered as “Jews”, but this translation is too wide and does not accurately reflect the way the term is used in John’s Gospel.)
See further on “the Jews” at
Once again, Joseph is identified as a disciple of Jesus (John 19:38; so also Matt 27:57, and, as we have argued above, that is the implication in both Mark 15 and Luke 23). Both Joseph and Nicodemus, we might presume, were numbered among the “many, even of the authorities, [who] believed in him”, but who, “because of the Pharisees, did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue” (12:42).
The manner in which the body of Jesus is removed from the cross into the grave, anointed with an extravagantly large amount of spices, myrrh and aloes and wrapped in linen cloths “according to the burial custom of the Jews”, and placed in a previously unused tomb (19:38–40), reflects the tender, respectful approach of these two of Jesus’s disciples.
See more on Joseph at
So the Pharisee of Jerusalem is a character of some significance in John’s book of signs; he traces a pathway which the author hopes that those who hear his story or read his book will also follow, for “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). It’s a most appropriate story, and relevant invitation, for the season of Lent.
On what we know historically about the Pharisees, see