Whether John's narration or the words of Jesus, John 3:16 has become perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible. In one phrase comes the power of the gospel. But what are we to make of the man, Nicodemus, who visited Jesus in the middle of the night and whose conversation sparked this verse? What motive did he have in coming?
John's account tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee on the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Because Jesus had cleansed the Temple with a whip earlier (John 2:14-17), He had made few friends among the leaders of Jerusalem. Thus, the visit of such an important official is certainly noteworthy. What follows is an account that reads, if one may speculate, much like notes from an eyewitness who watched the exchange and then reflects on the event years later.
Some scholars have claimed that Nicodemus came as a representative of the Sanhedrin, an enquirer tasked with determining an "official" response based on the answers he received. After all, Nicodemus speaks using the first person plural ("We know You have come from God as a Teacher"). But the problems with this idea are numerous. For one, Nicodemus would not have needed to sneak through the night for an official visit, since other Jewish officials challenged Jesus in public. Secondly, his declaration that Jesus is a Teacher from God hardly seems the language of a disapproving enquirer. But, mainly, Nicodemus later reveals himself when he comes with Joseph of Arimethea to take and prepare Jesus's body (John 19:39).
The better answer is that Nicodemus, while not yet fully convinced, had seen the miracles Jesus had performed. Comparing what he knew from the Old Testament and the expectation of the Messiah, he contrived a way to see Jesus. Thus, he came honestly "seeking after God." By the time of Jesus's death, Nicodemus had become bold enough to publicly reveal what he now believed.
Adapted from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Book III, Chapter VI) and from the lecture notes of Dr. Doug Bookman, professor of New Testament Exposition at Shepherds Theological Seminary (used by permission).