“This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”—John 3:12
What are we to make of Nicodemus’ statement? He says nothing disagreeable. He says much that is true. He seems to be on the right trail. He is different from the other leaders. Yet, at this point, it is not enough.
He addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” an honorable term for a teacher that means “master.” But compare his use of “Rabbi” to that of Andrew and the disciple who was likely John, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (1:38). Andrew and John address Jesus as Rabbi, wishing to be His disciples. Nicodemus does so, as one who believes he is His peer. This can be seen in his next statement.
“We know you are a teacher,” Nicodemus continues. Who is this “we”? The rulers, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The fisherman’s approach to the Savior, having received John’s testimony, expressed humility. Nicodemus however, lets Jesus know that they know. How nice it must have been to have their recognition, as though the brambles said to the tree, “Cousin Oak, we recognize you as a woody plant.”
Further, they know He is “come from God.” He is God-sent. And the reason they know this is, Nicodemus says, is because no one can do the signs that Jesus does unless God is with him. Instead of demanding a sign, as his infuriated colleagues did earlier, this Pharisee say that the signs Jesus is doing, they see them, and they testify that Jesus is “a teacher come from God.”
But when you begin to listen to Jesus’ reply, you sense something is wrong, but what exactly is it? I believe there are basically two things. First, Nicodemus is a man. Pause. Back up. Read this passage again, but beginning with 2:24 and then ignoring helpful, yet intrusive man-manufactured address markers.
“But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”
Jesus doesn’t entrust Himself to Nicodemus. Yes, he speak to Him differently than He does the other rulers, Still, He also speaks to Nicodemus differently than He does Andrew or Peter or Philip or Nathanael. Something is wrong. Nicodemus is a man. Jesus knows what is in man. John has given us subtle clues that something is wrong inside Nicodemus. Light may be shining without, but there is still darkness within.
Second, Jesus is more than a man. Nicodemus confesses true things about Jesus, but he doesn’t confess Jesus. John wrote this book so that you might believe, not just select true things about Jesus as you might perceive them, but so that you might perceive the truth of who Jesus is and what He has done and thus believe in Him. John wrote for this purpose and thus the events that He records were for this purpose: so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God.
Nicodemus’ statement is really a question. The very question that was put to John the Baptist in 1:19–23. The same question that was essentially put to Jesus when they demanded a sign. “Who are you?” Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as “a teacher come from God.” He fails to recognize Him as the Christ, the Son of God.
Know this, it is not enough to sincerely compliment Jesus with truth. Nicodemus is notably different, but he isn’t different enough. He must be born again. There is a way of complimenting and praising Jesus with truth, that falls flat. Nicodemus’ compliment falls flat, like that of another ruler. “And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’” (Luke 18:18–19). It does no good for a man to compliment Jesus as a man. You must worship Him as God.