Men Loved Darkness
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” John 1:4-5
The conflict between light and darkness is one of the many lenses through which one can read the Gospel of John.
The iconic opening verses of John 1 set the scene for the book: Jesus is the light who enters a world saturated in darkness. But not everyone is happy to have light enter their lives, so the light immediately starts to create division. Just like the creation of light in Genesis 1 separated the day from the night, the light who entered the world in John 1 would separate those who love light from those who love darkness. You might expect a savior who came to free people from their darkness would be accepted with open arms—but it turned out that all too many preferred their darkness.
In this article, we examine the stories of two characters in John’s gospel who crossed over the line between light and darkness. The spiritual transformation of both men spans the entirety of the ministry of Jesus. A comparison of their conversion stories reveals that while they share many similarities, they trend in opposite directions. If you were to depict their spiritual journeys on a line graph, they would display a clear inverse relationship (see Page 31). While one man starts out loving darkness and ends up coming to the light, the other starts in the light and ends up going over to the power of darkness. Their respective transformations develop slowly over time, but ultimately, the defining moment of both men’s conversions occur within 24 hours of each other—at the crucifixion of Jesus.
The two men are Nicodemus, the pharisee and Judas Iscariot, the disciple.
Jesus met and called both Nicodemus and Judas Iscariot to join him near the beginning of his public ministry, but their responses were very different. Judas answered the call, was given the Holy Spirit power to perform miracles and was sent out to preach the gospel of the kingdom. (Mark 3:13-19) Though profoundly impacted by his meeting with Jesus, Nicodemus was not prepared to respond to Jesus’ invitation, preferring the comfort, security and honor of his position. Light had come into his world, but Nicodemus loved darkness too much to leave it behind and step into the light.
Initially, then, Nicodemus and Judas were on totally different planes—Nicodemus preferred darkness, and initially refused to come to Jesus. But in the beginning, Judas was walking in the light (John 8:12).
As far as we know, Judas began well (Acts 1:17). As Jesus’ ministry progresses, however, we are given hints that his discipleship had started to weaken. The first indication comes in John 6:66-71, at a stage when many were becoming disillusioned with Jesus’s teaching. “From that time,” we are told, “many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” Jesus asks the disciples if they would also depart, but loyal Peter speaks up with his famous confession of faith: “Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the son of the living God.” This was a high point in Peter’s discipleship, but Jesus warned him that he couldn’t speak for everyone: “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?”
it seems reasonable to say that the unpalatable idea of a dead king began to sow the seeds of betrayal in Judas’s heart.We learn from the next verse that it was Judas Iscariot, “one of the twelve,” who did not share Peter’s firm belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. What was it that had shaken Judas’s fledgling faith? We aren’t told about the specific source of Judas’s doubts, but the immediate context does tell us why many other disciples were turning their backs on Jesus at this time. For much of John 6, Jesus has been speaking enigmatically about his death. He taught his listeners that they must eat and drink his flesh and blood if they want to be his disciples. In 6:51, he had said, “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” For people who were looking for a victorious king, these were “hard saying[s]” to swallow (John 6:15, 60). They were tripped up by Jesus speaking about his death— and their faith began to wane. We know from later events (John 12:4-6) that Judas was particularly interested in the temporal benefits of association with Jesus. Thus, it seems reasonable to say that the unpalatable idea of a dead king began to sow the seeds of betrayal in Judas’s heart.
While the idea of a dying Messiah seems to have played a part in the decline of Judas’s faith in Jesus as the son of God, John 3 makes it very clear that it was a significant stumbling block for Nicodemus as well. The iconic climax of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus is one of the earliest and clearest statements of his mission: God loved the world so much that he planned to give his only son to be impaled on a pole to save those who believed on him. Nicodemus was asked to believe that Jesus was the son of God and that he was going to be killed. Even though Jesus went on to warn that refusing to accept this would bring him into the condemnation of those who love darkness, Nicodemus was unconvinced. Like Judas—and many Jews—the idea of “Christ crucified” was a massive stumbling-block to his faith (1 Cor 1:23).
The next time we see Nicodemus is during a council of the chief priests and Pharisees in John 7. They had sent out officers to arrest Jesus, who returned empty-handed. The reason for their failure to arrest Jesus? “Never man spake like this man.” (v. 46). The appalled Pharisees lambasted the soldiers: “Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed” (vv. 47-49). The Pharisees seem to be unaware of Nicodemus’s inner warring convictions. But the text reveals that Nicodemus is uncomfortable with his colleagues’ confident and premature dismissal of Jesus’ claims:
Notice that Nicodemus is still identified as the one who had come to Jesus by night — because he had remained in the darkness of the defiant religious rulers—he was still “one of them.” But we are starting to see him depart from the general hostility towards Jesus that was rampant within the Sanhedrin. He cautions his colleagues that they violatied the due process, stipulated in the Law of Moses.
But the Pharisees are quick to turn on Nicodemus for daring to defend Jesus. They respond, “Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” (v. 52). Nicodemus doesn’t respond, but it seems likely indeed that he went home and started searching, if he wasn’t already. (See also Jesus’ appeal to the Pharisees in John 5:39-46). As he furiously read through scroll after scroll, questioning his assumptions and trying to put together a picture of who Messiah was supposed to be, at some point he likely came to Isaiah 9, which foretells that there would come a time when, “in Galilee” of the nations, “the people that walked in darkness would see a great light.” (v. 1). Imagine the chill that went down Nicodemus’s spine as he read of a “great light” springing up in the darkness of Galilee—and how it intensified a few verses later as he read, “for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (v. 6) and he realized that the coming King was supposed to be revealed in the despised Galilee. Slowly, imperceptibly, Nicodemus’s disbelief in Jesus was being worn down.
Meanwhile, in Judas’s spiritual journey, it was his faith that was being worn down. To read the next episode in his story, we fast forward to the last week of Christ’s life, to a meal Jesus and his disciples shared with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The contrast between Judas and Nicodemus becomes even more evident when Mary anointed Jesus with a whole pound of costly spikenard in a beautiful act of devotion, understanding and love. Whereas in John 7, Nicodemus had defended Jesus’ followers, instigating conflict amongst the religious rulers, Judas criticizes loyal Mary, causing murmuring amongst Jesus disciples. As both Nicodemus and Judas edge closer to revealing where their convictions lie, neither man was willing to say anything that would get them ejected from the security of their position in their respective groups. Instead, when they wanted to voice their objection to what was going on, they did so in a way that disguised their true loyalties. For Nicodemus, this meant appealing to due process under the law, a relatively safe thing to say to his Sanhedrin colleagues. For Judas, it meant appealing to the irreproachable cause of caring for the poor.
Hypocrisy—acting in a way that belies one’s true motivations and convictions—was one of Judas’s biggest problems. It appears that Judas had perfected the art of hypocrisy so well that he could make his closest companions think he was a socially conscious philanthropist while secretly pilfering from the common fund to set up a nest egg for himself. The thick facade he had built up around his heart was so impenetrable that Jesus’ repeated warnings and appeals never really impacted his conscience. Even on the night of the last supper, when Jesus had warned him at least four times that he knew what he was up to, Judas would not be dissuaded from his intention (John 13:10, 18; Matt. 26:21, 23-24). When his fellow disciples engaged in honest self-examination, asking Jesus if it was them who would betray their Lord, Judas chimed in with a convincingly earnest “Master, is it I?” even as the High Priest’s silver weighed down his pockets. A few minutes later, when he left to join the group of armed men that would arrest Jesus, John tells us that the other disciples assumed he was off to buy supplies or feed the poor (John 13:28-30).
Nicodemus’s hypocrisy cut in the opposite direction from Judas’s, but it proved almost as challenging to penetrate. Even though he had been deeply affected by his conversation with Jesus and believed that Jesus was a teacher sent from God, Nicodemus was seemingly far too comfortable in his position of Pharisaical prominence to switch sides. While no further direct conversations are recorded between him and Jesus, The Gospel of John records Jesus making many impassioned appeals aimed at Pharisees like Nicodemus in the temple courts, which would have almost certainly come to his ears. (John 5:39-47, 7:14-29, 8:12-18, 8:28-32, 9:39-41, 12:35-48). The first of these is John 5:39-40, where Jesus challenged the Pharisees to test their assumptions about the law they claimed to know, “Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me! And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.” Nicodemus had been personally invited to come into Jesus’ light back in John 3, so Jesus asked why he still refused to respond. The last of these public appeals meant to reach Nicodemus is found in John 12:35-36, where Jesus had just been asked why he says that the Christ, who was supposed to be eternal, must be lifted up (a reference to John 3:14). Jesus’ answer is a warning that time is running out for those who still have not come to him. “Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you… While ye have the light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light.”
Nicodemus’s and Judas’s spiritual paths finally meet—and diverge again—in the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. Each man’s character arc reaches its climax as he faces the final decision to reveal and act upon his true allegiance.
Judas ignored Jesus’ repeated appeals, left the little ecclesia in the upper room, and set off to gather the force that would capture Jesus. Tellingly, John 13:30 adds: “and it was night.” Judas led the High Priest’s mob to the Garden of Gethsemane and betrayed the Son of Man with a kiss. But he lingered to witness the trial until the verdict was given (Matt 26:66, 27:3). Meanwhile, within the house, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea tried desperately to hold the trumped-up trial to some semblance of due process. According to Matthew 26:59-62, the council brought many false witnesses against Jesus, but were unable to find any that agreed. If everyone was on board, and Jesus said nothing to defend himself, why were his accusers proved to be false? At least Joseph of Arimathaea, and probably Nicodemus were fiercely cross-examining the witnesses, trying to hold the council to some semblance of due process (Luke 23:51; John 19:38). Still, their dissent was overpowered by the rest of the Sanhedrin, who thundered, “He is guilty of death.”
Jesus lost a disciple that night—but before the next sunset, he would gain another.Matthew 27:3 reveals that it was when Judas saw that Jesus had been sentenced to death that he “repented himself.” As the enormity of his treachery sank in, Judas frantically tried to return his silver to the High Priests, hoping to undo the consequence of his betrayal, but to no avail. Realizing he was guilty of betraying the body and blood of the Lord, he threw away the money, went out, and hanged himself. Judas had chosen to go over to the power of darkness and believed it was too late to come back. He had done the unthinkable and therefore believed he had gone beyond redemption. He chose to kill himself rather than live with the guilt of betraying the son of God. His spiritual journey met its bitter end in a broken, gory mess in the middle of the night in a dark and lonely field (Acts 1:18). Jesus lost a disciple that night—but before the next sunset, he would gain another.
By the end of the following day, the execution of Jesus had been carried out. His marred and bloodied body hung limply from the nails that held him to the cross—in a grim display of defeat. Now that the object of their hatred and derision hung defeated on the cross, the religious rulers began to drift away from Golgotha. But to their surprise, Nicodemus pushed past them and approached the cross. “And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night.” (John 19:39). At last, Nicodemus had gathered the courage and conviction to break rank with his fellow Pharisees and take the most critical step of his life—out of darkness, and into the light. There would be no going back now. Nicodemus had nailed his colors to the mast—or rather to the cross. He made it clear where his loyalties now belonged: in the body of Christ.
On the previous night, Judas had killed himself because he saw that Jesus was condemned to death. But when Nicodemus witnessed the death of Jesus, he saw the opportunity to be born into a new life. When Nicodemus saw Jesus lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, everything fell into place. He was fully convinced that Jesus was who he said he was (John 3:14-16; 8:28; 12:31-36). In that moment, Nicodemus was reborn. By associating himself with the crucifixion and burial of Christ, Nicodemus had finally completed the process of conversion Jesus had begun on the night they first met.
Judas began in the light, but as he became disillusioned with its message, he began to hide from its rays behind a hardened facade of hypocrisy. Eventually, his fallen motivations revealed themselves in his actions, and he left the light of the world to join forces with the power of darkness. His story’s tragic end is a chilling testament to the danger of resisting the light.
On the other hand, Nicodemus began in the dark, not comprehending the light that had blazed into his life. He resisted Jesus’ message for years, wanting to believe that his understanding of what God required was sufficient—he didn’t think he needed the light. As time went on, the light slowly made progress in his mind and his heart, but he hid his growing conviction, unwilling to lose his position, his reputation, and the Scriptural understanding he prided himself on (John 5:39-45, 12:42-50). For Nicodemus, it was the spectacle of the crucified Messiah, lifted up on a cross that finally convinced him to come into the light. The gospel had shined into his heart in the face of Jesus Christ, and at last, he responded. From that moment on, Nicodemus chose to walk in the light.
1 John 1:5-10’s description of what it means to walk in the light explains the difference between the paths that Nicodemus and Judas chose:
Throughout the ministry of Jesus, both Judas and Nicodemus claimed to be in fellowship with God (by their association with Jesus or the Law), but as long as they refused to receive the light of Jesus’ words, they lied, and did not the truth. When Nicodemus finally chose to renounce the lies, he used to subscribe to, and began to walk in the light of Jesus, he was cleansed from sin. Judas’s ending stands in tragic contrast. When Judas regretted his sin, he was so enveloped by the darkness that he did not see a path to confession and restoration, and so went to his grave unforgiven.
When he first met Nicodemus, Jesus issued the following challenge:
Jesus clearly stated that a man’s response to the light would be the basis on which he would be judged. If we refuse the light because we love darkness, then we will be condemned; but if we come to the light because we value the truth, we will be saved. Judas took the first choice, and Nicodemus took the second. (See Page 37.)
We, too, have had the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shined into our hearts in the face of Jesus Christ. Our natural tendency is to follow Judas’s downward-sloping path—because “men love darkness,” but if we choose to walk the harder path, we can face the darkness without fear of stumbling because we follow the Light of Life.
(Thousand Oaks, CA)