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Nicodemus had all the right credentials, and his doctrinal ducks in a row about who Jesus was.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, who took the scriptures seriously and literally. He was a ruler, not a layman.
He called Jesus “Rabbi” and “Teacher,” which is of course what Jesus was. Nicodemus acknowledged the
fact of Jesus’ miracles, and recognized that they demonstrated God’s presence with him. His verdict
differs radically from that of his comrades, who attributed Jesus’ mighty deeds to Beelzebub. He was
humble enough to recognize his need to learn more, and serious enough to seek Jesus out for talk. It
seems safe to assume that he lived in Jerusalem, national religious center, home of the temple.
Then there was Zaccheus. Zaccheus inhabited Jericho, a city Joshua had destroyed centuries ago,
and of which it was said, “Cursed is the man who rises up and builds this city Jericho.” No mention is
made of any religious affiliation or commitment on his part. But we do know that Zaccheus was a (hated)
tax collector. Not just a minor agent, but a chief tax collector. He was rich. Had he used his position to
line his own pockets? Those who knew him called him a sinner. Zaccheus made no appointment with the
Lord, but climbed a tree simply to gaze at Jesus, not to inquire and learn from him. He makes no
acknowledgement of Jesus’ miracles or empowerment by God. His use of “Lord” in addressing Jesus
seems less impressive than Nicodemus’ “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no
one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, despite all his good theology and sincere spiritual seeking, about the need
to be born again, implying that he was not. By contrast, Zaccheus makes no confession of faith, but
simply stands and tells Jesus what he was about to do—give to the poor and restore any ill-gotten gains.
Hearing this, the Lord speaks of his salvation as a son of Abraham.
What’s going on here? Did Jesus get it wrong? Didn’t he know that we are saved by grace through
faith, not of works lest anyone should boast? Or instead is there something we need to learn—that
Christians sometimes too quickly give credence to a person’s words, and discount how change and
character and deeds constitute essential components of faith?