A Man of the Pharisees: John 3:1

John 3:1  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 10
This expression is singular; it is not "a certain Pharisee," but "a man of the Pharisees," throwing the emphasis on man, and defining what kind of man Nicodemus was, by adding "of the Pharisees." This will more clearly appear from the context: "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself unto them, because He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man; for He knew what was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees." The prominent point is "man," and what is "in man." Man can appreciate miracles and be forced by them to acknowledge the power and superiority of Him by whom they are wrought, and to render Him homage; and in human estimation this would be accredited as faith. But He who knew what was in man, did not so accredit it. The faith which is an inference of the human mind is not the faith in God which subjects man to God; but, on the contrary, it subjects God to human caprice—at one time acknowledging Him, at another, questioning either His being, presence, or perfection. He who knew what was in man was the same Jehovah who had been with Israel of old as their deliverer, sustainer, and guide, proving Himself to be the only God by a constant succession of miracles. But this is His complaint against Israel: "Because all those men which have seen My glory, and My miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted Me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to My voice; surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked Me see it." Numb. 14:22, 2322Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; 23Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it: (Numbers 14:22‑23).
Miracles demonstrating to Israel the presence of God, left Israel indeed without excuse for not trusting in Him. But at the same time, the history of this generation in the wilderness who were witnesses of miracle upon miracle, serves to demonstrate to us that, however the understanding may be convinced, if the heart be not touched, there never is confidence in God. "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness." It is "an evil heart of unbelief" which leads to departure "from the living God." God can call heaven and earth to witness that He has left nothing undone to reclaim man; and of this Israel's history is the convincing proof. "Hear ye, 0 mountains, the LORD'S controversy, and ye strong foundations of the earth: for the Lord hath a controversy with His people, and He will plead with Israel. 0 My people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against Me. For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I set before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 0 My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness of the LORD." Mic. 6:2-52Hear ye, O mountains, the Lord's controversy, and ye strong foundations of the earth: for the Lord hath a controversy with his people, and he will plead with Israel. 3O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me. 4For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord. (Micah 6:2‑5).
The Scriptures are commended by the most substantial and convincing proofs of their divine authority to the understanding of men; yet it is very questionable whether $ an instance can be found of one who has been brought to peace with God by the evidences of Christianity. The mind may be satisfied with conviction arising from such evidences, but it is still culpably ignorant of God as a being to be loved and confided in. "This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart." Eph. 4:17, 1817This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, 18Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: (Ephesians 4:17‑18).
The heart needs to be touched and the conscience reached, as well as the understanding informed, before a person will confide in God. When many "believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did... Jesus did not commit Himself unto them." John 2:23, 2423Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. 24But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, (John 2:23‑24). The conviction arising from miracles would be as transient as it had been in the days of old. "The waters covered their enemies: there was not one of them left. Then believed they His words; they sang His praise. They soon forgat His works; they waited not for His counsel; but lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert." Psalm 106:11-1411And the waters covered their enemies: there was not one of them left. 12Then believed they his words; they sang his praise. 13They soon forgat his works; they waited not for his counsel: 14But lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. (Psalm 106:11‑14).
The Lord knew that it was not confidence in Him, but confidence in their present convictions, which might speedily pass away, and therefore, "Jesus did not commit Himself unto them." But when one of character and pretensions (Nicodemus) came to Him on this ground, He confounds him by proposing to him the fundamental doctrine which resulted from His knowledge of what was in man.
"There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews."
Nicodemus may be regarded by us as a specimen man. He was not an ordinary person, but a religious leader, for so we understand "a ruler of the Jews." He was, moreover, of the orthodox sect of the Pharisees, holding many important truths in theory, which were denied by the Sadducees, or modernists, although the Pharisees practically denied the truths they held by overlaying them with tradition.
He came to Jesus at least with respect and as an inquirer, although, from fear of his coreligionists, he came by night. He addressed Jesus not in the contemptuous language used ordinarily by the Pharisees toward Him, but by the conventional title usually given to accredited religious teachers—"Rabbi."
All this was fair and promising; but he goes much beyond this; he acknowledges Jesus to be "a teacher come from God." This acknowledgment set Jesus above the ordinary teachers, and was in itself most emphatically true; for Jesus is the Prophet of whom Moses wrote, whose teaching had this solemn sanction: "And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which He shall speak in My name, I will require it of him." Deut. 18:1919And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:19).
But Nicodemus did not at the moment recognize the spiritual glory of Jesus as one who had come forth from the Father and had come into the world (John 16:2525These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father. (John 16:25)). He accredited the mission of Jesus as divine, because he saw the miracles He did. "No man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him." But this acknowledgment would place Jesus no higher than Elijah or Elisha, whose mission was attested by extraordinary miracles. The Lord, therefore, tests this acknowledgment of Him as a teacher by propounding to Nicodemus an elementary doctrine, which, although at first received upon His authority as a teacher, would gather abundant proof from those scriptures of which Nicodemus himself was an accredited teacher. (The word rendered "master" in verse 10 is the same as that rendered "teacher" in verse 2.) "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus was stumbled at this authoritative announcement. But the Lord Jesus demands to be heard on His own authority—"Verily, verily, I say unto you." Such an authority a man of the Pharisees is not prepared to recognize, unless the doctrine propounded corroborates the doctrines which he has already received on the authority of tradition. But this is not to own the authority of the Teacher come from God. Men readily recognize traditional doctrines and support them, too, on the authority of Jesus, when they are capable of such support; but they equally insist on them to resist the authority of Jesus when His word is brought against them, making the Word of God of none effect through their tradition. At this day, many are the doctrines received on the authority of the so-called Church, which nullify the plainest teaching of the Lord and His apostles. So the complaint of Jesus of the men of the Pharisees of His day is equally applicable to men of a like stamp of our own day -"And because I tell you the truth, ye believe Me not." John 8:4545And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. (John 8:45).
The first step of emancipation from Pharisaism is the acknowledging the authority of Jesus as a teacher, however unsupported His teaching may be by traditional authority. Such authority was demanded of Jesus by the Pharisees—"By what authority doest Thou these things?" And Jesus, by referring them for an answer to the authority of the baptism of John, plainly showed that He refused all human credentials, and demanded to be received on the authority of God alone. Nothing is more difficult than to act on the authority of God, unsupported by human credentials; such acting is the acting of faith. "Have faith in God." It appeals to the conscience of men; and wherever it is recognized, it carries with it far greater weight than the authority which is backed by every attestation which man can give to it. Jesus taught as one "having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:2929For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Matthew 7:29)); and it is a turning point when one acknowledges Jesus as the authoritative teacher and receives His word on His own authority.
This prepares the way for the second great act of emancipation from Pharisaism. A man of the Pharisees sees not, with all his pretensions, a present power of deliverance and a present blessing. His religion has attainment in view, always sought but never possessed. This draws an essential distinction between a man of the Pharisees and a Christian. A Christian is and has what the other is seeking to be and to have. A Christian receives every blessing in the way of a gift; a Pharisee is seeking it under some form or other in the way of doing. A Christian, by faith, enters into present salvation; a Pharisee can only eye salvation as a contingent future. It is thus the authoritative teacher announces His primary doctrine to "a man of the Pharisees"—"Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God"; and if he cannot see it, he cannot enter into it. This primary truth was announced by the Lord to a candid and well-instructed teacher of Israel, whose study and occupation was religion.
The line between a man of the Pharisees and a believer in Christ is one of essential separation. No progress in Pharisaism of the most promising kind ever traverses this line. No religion whatever which proceeds from man, or consists in ordinances, ever leads even to the threshold of the entrance into the kingdom of God. The best specimen of Pharisaism is presented to us in proof that unless God positively works by His own power, so as to communicate to man that which he could never attain, he must remain a stranger to the kingdom of God. A man must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. This is the elementary doctrine pro-
pounded by Jesus as an authoritative teacher, easily corroborated by the ancient oracles of God, as Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, ought to have known. But it is a doctrine of far more difficult reception by modern than by ancient Pharisees, because it has been the effort of the many to set aside, supersede, or obliterate this doctrine by a system of ordinances, so that it has perhaps never been a question of affecting the conscience of the vast majority of nominal Christians around us, whether or not they have been born again.
God grant that the essential difference between flesh and spirit, divine and human righteousness, Pharisaism and faith in Christ, may be made known not by words of human wisdom, but by the powerful demonstration of the Spirit. "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the LORD." Zech. 4:66Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 4:6).