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St. John, iii. 1, 2. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler
of the Jews : the same came to Jesus by night.
NICODEMUS was a man of the highest rank among the Jews, and a pharisee of great reputation for his learning and piety. We find him described in the Gospel, as a ruler, or magistrate, and a member of their high court of Sanhedrim, or parliament; and the ancient works of the Jews are full of strange and improbable stories as to his wealth, his magnificent liberality, and the wonderful manner in which his prayers were supposed to be heard by God. His substance was calculated as sufficient to feed all Jerusalem for seven years ; his daughter's marriage bed was, in ostentation of wealth, built up with purses of money; his liberality was esteemed as unbounded ; and so great was his reputation for piety, that his prayers were,
on more than one occasion, believed by the Jews to have wrought miracles, and called down rain from Heaven. These stories, indeed, are strange and improbable ; nor do they rest on any better authority than the traditions of the Rabbins and the Pharisees; but wild as they are, they prove, at least, the high estimation in which he was held ; insomuch that the riches of Nicodemus, and the misfortunes of his family, became a sort of proverb, to express the excess and the uncertainty of worldly prosperity.
A grave and learned and wealthy and renowned man, with so much to hazard from any change, and so naturally disposed to favour the present state of things, was not likely to be forward in embracing a new religion, or one which was only recommended by so poor and so young a teacher as our Lord. Besides, as yet, not one of those with whom Nicodemus was most accustomed to associate; none of those, whose good opinion he chiefly valued ; none of the rulers of the Jews, none of the rich, none of the learned, had ventured openly to confess their suspicions, that this strange Galilean, whom they persecuted, was, after all, that Messiah which should come into the world : and Nicodemus, it is possible, had joined, as loudly as the rest of his brother magistrates, in discountenancing the new prophet, and his forerunner John ; and in deriding the poor fishermen and silly
women who believed in the miracles which Jesus performed.
It is probable, nevertheless, that this ruler of the Jews had been for some time uneasy in his mind. It was impossible for a man so well acquainted with the Law and the Prophets, not to observe, that Jesus of Nazareth did all the works, and displayed all the tokens, which Moses and the Prophets had foretold of the Messiah : and his rank and leisure gave him every opportunity of learning the particulars of our Lord's miraculous birth, and of the circumstances by which His early life was rendered remarkable. He had, doubtless, heard from the Herod family themselves, the visit of the wise men of the east; and the fears, which that visit excited. The star must have been seen by all Judea ; and he himself, perhaps, for he was of advanced age, was one of the doctors who had admired the understanding, and the answers of the young Jesus, in the Temple. At all events, the manner, in which John the Baptist proclaimed Him the Lamb of God, was known to all Judea and Galilee ; and the wonderful works, which Jesus wrought, were of a kind not to be concealed; nor to be performed by any man, unless the power and presence of God were with him.
We may suppose, perhaps, as these reflections recurred with daily increasing strength to the
mind of Nicodemus, that the ruler's perplexity would increase in proportion. “ If Jesus be the Christ, the Messiah, whom we expect, am I justified in delaying to fall down and worship Him? If Moses have commanded us to obey that Prophet, whom God should raise up like unto Him; - am I excusable in delaying to own myself His follower? If this be the Lamb of God, who is to take away the sins of his people, what can I hope for, if I neglect so great a salvation ?” Such, we may suppose, were the meditations of this man; but to obey the conviction thus implanted in his soul, involved in itself the sacrifice of much reputation; great danger to his rank, and esteem in society; and, when the temper of the times was considered, the loss of his general property, and perhaps of life itself. These are the seasons, when riches and reputation are real snares to men : when they must be abandoned, for the sake of God; or retained, against our consciences : and there are few, who, when such a sacrifice is called for, have had sufficient courage to cast off their encumbrances; and to enter naked into the kingdom of life. Of these few, Nicodemus was not one: he durst not own Christ publicly; yet he could not help believing on Him; and after, it may be, much inward struggle, between his fear of the world, and his conviction of the truth, he has recourse to the
usual expedient of cowardice : he comes, by night, to Jesus ; and professes himself His disciple privately.
In his manner of doing this, and in the conversation, which followed, we may perceive, I think, much of that pride of rank and riches, which was likely to possess the mind of a nobleman ; much of that confidence in his own learning, and in his own virtues, to which the Pharisees were but too liable. And if we keep these points in mind, during the whole of our Saviour's discourse, we shall be able, I think, to perceive His intention — to humble both these feelings in the heart of his new disciple ; or, at least, by the touchstone of humility, to prove, whether he were sincere.
Nicodemus, perhaps, was of opinion, that, when so mighty and so wise a man as he was, came to Christ, and owned himself His disciple, the Prophet would be willing to accept so eminent a convert, on his own terms : that He would not insist on his submitting to the usual and public ceremonies of a profession of his faith ; but that, in private, and without revealing his secret, Jesus would gladly admit him to far more favour and confidence, than those poor Galileans, who were, as yet, His principal followers. Nor, had Jesus been a deceiver, had He been a mere human teacher of righteousness, would He have hesitated at a step so evidently