Nicodemus has often had what may be called a bad press among preachers and Bible commentators. He has been accused of timidity, even cowardice, on two chief grounds: first, that he came to Jesus by night instead of in broad daylight, and second, that he was a disciple in secret, failing to identify himself publicly with Jesus Christ until His crucifixion and death. For instance, Clovis G. Chappell says that “his timidity was at least part of the reason for his coming by night” (Questions Jesus Asked). A. Leonard Griffith says, “We cannot escape the conclusion that for obvious reasons Nicodemus did not want to be seen either by the common people or by his colleagues of the Sanhedrin” (Encounters With Christ). J. D. Grey speaks of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as “two outstanding men [who] having failed to stand up for Christ during his life, came to shed their tears too late after his death” (Epitaphs For Eager Preachers).

But this idea that Nicodemus was timid and even cowardly is certainly open to question. Take first the matter of his coming to Jesus by night. It may not have been due to fear at all; there are several other possible explanations. For example, Raymond Calkins says that Nicodemus came by night “simply because he could not wait for day.… Some wonderful word of Jesus had entered into this man’s heart” (Religion and Life).

Another possible explanation is that only at night would he have the opportunity for the calm and unhurried conversation he wanted. Or it may have been caution rather than cowardice that compelled Nicodemus to come by night. After all, he occupied a highly important and influential position among his fellow Jews: Clovis Chappell quotes a description of him as “at once the equivalent of a college professor, a judge of the supreme court, and a bishop of the church.” In view of his position Nicodemus had to be careful not to take any public stance on a religious matter before he was sure of his ground. So he came to Jesus by night to avoid undue publicity on a matter about which he had not yet made up his mind.

Furthermore, Nicodemus’s failure to identify himself publicly with Jesus until the crucifixion may have been due not to cowardice but to uncertainty and puzzlement. At his memorable interview with Jesus recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus was told of the necessity of a new birth in order to enter the kingdom of God. Bewildered, he asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4). Even when Jesus explained that he was talking about spiritual and not physical rebirth, Nicodemus apparently did not understand. It may well be that he did not really comprehend Jesus’ message until Calvary, when he came to realize the meaning of Jesus’ statement to him that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14, 15). Then, and only then, did Nicodemus experience the repentance, the change of mind, that is essential to the new birth. So genuine bewilderment and uncertainty, rather than cowardice, may have kept Nicodemus from publicly identifying himself as a follower of Jesus until His crucifixion.

On the other hand, on two occasions Nicodemus displayed what must be called courage, even heroism. In the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel it is recorded that when the Pharisees sent officers to arrest Jesus, these officers returned empty-handed, saying, “No man ever spoke like this man!” Hearing this the Pharisees chided them, saying, “Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?” At that point Nicodemus interjected this question, “Does our Law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and knowing what he does?” (John 7:51), thus exposing himself to the taunting reply, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee” (John 7:52). Though Nicodemus was here stating a well-recognized principle of Jewish law, by doing so to these bitter enemies of Jesus he risked their scorn and opposition.

It is recorded, too, that after Jesus had been crucified, Joseph of Arimathea (it is he and not Nicodemus who is described as a “disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” in John 19:38) asked permission from Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, to have the body of Jesus in order to give it burial: and Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint the body. James Black points out that in doing this Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea “threw in their lot with [Jesus] at the very ebb of his defeat, when the world laughed at him … when they ran the danger of the scorn of the world, and the … prejudice of the triumphant priests” (An Apology For Rogues). This was not the act of a coward.

Nicodemus’s relation with Jesus permits the interpretation that he was a sincere and high-minded religious seeker who, when he became convinced of the truth of the Christian message, did not hesitate to express his Christian discipleship publicly. And though no authentic records of Nicodemus’s subsequent career have survived, there seems no reason to doubt that he continued in the Christian way until his life’s end.

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