One of the religious elites is curious about Jesus. He comes to Jesus at night. It can be a private conversation outside of the earshot of others. Am I seeking out Jesus? Do I need a private audience? Jesus is happy to accommodate me.
There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to him at night and said, “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 3:1-2
The word “man” is actually the same as “human being”. John brings Nicodemus forward as an example of the human beings whose inner contents Jesus knows. Jesus “knew what was in a human being”, and he knows what’s in Nicodemus.
“Pharisee” identifies Nicodemus by religious affiliation. John doesn’t pay very much attention to the religious distinctives of the Pharisees. For him the Pharisees are simply prominent authorities in Jewish society and part of the religious elites.
And so “a ruler of the Jews” identifies the Pharisee Nicodemus as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. John will remind us that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night,” and will do so in connection with the secrecy of Joseph of Arimathea’s discipleship “because of fear of the Jews”. It appears, then, that Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen coming to Jesus.
But there’s more. The Word, who became Jesus of Nazareth, has already been described as “the light of human beings,” as “the light” that “is shining in the darkness,” and as the light that “the darkness didn’t apprehend”.
Jesus will yet claim to be “the light of the world” and “the light of life” and right in the present chapter will associate darkness with evil and light with truth. “Light” and “night” stand opposed to each other. “Night” stands for the moral darkness into which Judas Iscariot enters when he exits from the presence of Jesus to betray the light of the world. Nicodemus’s coming to Jesus at night symbolizes an approach to the light of the world out of the darkness of sin and judgment.
“Rabbi” means “my great one” and therefore as an address pays honor to Jesus. “We know” uses the vocabulary of belief in Jesus. “We’ve come to believe and know that you’re the Holy One of God,”.
“This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and [that they know] Jesus the Messiah, whom you sent.” Presumably the “we” who know include along with Nicodemus the believers in Jesus’ name.
“Teacher” interprets “Rabbi,” since John used “Teacher” as an equivalent of “Rabbi”.
“Come from God” agrees with a theme that runs throughout John. It’s that God “sent” Jesus into the world. The theme will reappear shortly in Jesus’ own teaching of Nicodemus.
The signs affirm it is from God: Nicodemus has said a lot of right things and continues to do so in affirming that Jesus couldn’t be performing the signs he does unless God were with him.
Saying that God is with Jesus anticipates what Jesus himself will say: “I’m not alone, because the Father is with me”. Nicodemus is looking good. But will he persevere?
Here is the literal translation:
And there was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This one came to him [Jesus] at night and told him, “Rabbi, we know that as a teacher you’ve come from God. For no one can do these signs that you’re doing unless God is with him.”
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (Jn 3:1–2). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (pp. 359–364). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.