3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
An old Pharisee and a dying thief: what an exercise in contrasts. On the one hand, we have a man who has tried desperately to live his life by the laws of the temple, and who has striven to teach others to do the same. And on the other hand we have a career criminal, a man who lived a violent and lawless life of preying on others. Those are two people you would likely never have seen sitting next to each other in a synagogue.
Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night, curious but cautious about this new preacher in the area. He wanted to see if Jesus’ teachings lined up with the Pharisaical traditions and doctrines. Nicodemus was perhaps the most open-minded of the rulers of the Jews, but he remained on the sidelines until after Jesus had died – at which time he donated the spices for Jesus’ burial. (See John 7:43-53 and John 19:39) As a Pharisee, Nicodemus already believed in the resurrection of the righteous, but Jesus had performed wonders and taught with authority from God. No doubt, as much as Nicodemus was glad that a powerful prophet had come to Jerusalem – perhaps even the Messiah – he nonetheless wondered how it was that such a man of God had NOT come from among the Pharisees. After all, the Pharisees were the epitome of virtue, were they not? They were men who dedicated their lives to living according to the Law passed on through Moses, men who were sure of their righteousness. And yet Jesus had already railed against the practices in the temple court – activities allowed because of the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the letter of the Law. You can almost hear Nicodemus’ thoughts: “Who is this Jesus? Where does He come from? How does he come by His power and authority? What can I learn from Him?”
Of course, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are that this old man needs to be born again. “Born again? What?!?” That’s a whole new doctrine, a whole new teaching. What does He mean? We believers can look back now and nod knowingly, but Nicodemus was just like many adults who come to Jesus for the first time. We who come to Jesus later are just as curious about this idea, we want to know what the Savior means by being “born again.”
Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) How does repentance and believing in the gospel make one “born again”?
16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Aha! So belief in the gospel means belief in the Son of God. We get it now. But what about this “born again” stuff?
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him,
9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.
10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We have to believe in Christ Jesus and die to our past sins so that we can experience the newness of life. We have to “Repent, and believe in the gospel” and thus be “born again” into a new life of living in the Spirit. That’s the part of being born again that Jesus was trying to explain to old Nicodemus.
What does all this have to do with a dying thief? While Nicodemus had three years to decide what to believe about Jesus, the thief on the cross next to Jesus at Golgotha did not have such leisure. As Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Dying on a cross would certainly help to put things in perspective, wouldn’t you say? With only hours yet to live, with an innocent man nailed up next to you, it’s quite likely that you might gain some insight into your own life.
What Nicodemus didn’t learn in three years, an unnamed thief figured out in seconds. While Nicodemus continued to live as a Pharisee and tacitly supported – or at least, didn’t oppose – Jesus’ teachings, the thief spoke out in faith and knew Jesus for who He is: the Christ, the Savior. Where Nicodemus questioned Jesus and withheld his own judgment of this Teacher until he could know more, the dying thief repented and asked for forgiveness for his sins. While Nicodemus was still unsure of Jesus, the thief believed in the “good news” that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, the true King of kings. While Nicodemus fretted over how an old man could be born again, a repentant thief was born again while dying on a cross.
Is that what it takes to get someone to believe in the gospel and be born again? Must we face death and destruction to seek the face of our Lord and Savior? That is not always the case, but sometimes it is what God intends, so that we can see how wretched we are and how glorious He is. God may let the complacent wonder and think about Jesus, even while He reaches out directly to the hearts of the oppressed and condemned. Nicodemus had an opportunity to follow and to know Jesus, and yet he passed it up. The dying thief had no such option, and so he grabbed onto the Savior with all his heart, mind, soul and waning strength. Who would you rather be, reluctant Nicodemus or the bold and dying thief?
When the thief had spoken to Jesus as his “Lord,” he got this reply:
And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
From the gospel record, we do not know if Nicodemus ever accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord. Clearly, by donating the spices for Jesus’ burial, Nicodemus respected and honored Jesus, but we don’t know if old Nicodemus truly was “born again.” Perhaps, having been present at the Crucifixion, Nicodemus saw the example of the repentant thief and came to belief that day. We just don’t know for sure. What we do know is that the unnamed thief set an example for being born again that is unmatched in all the Bible.
Today let us reflect on what it means to be born again into this new life in Christ. Clearly, we can come to Him at any age or stage of our lives. All that is required is repentance and faith. Nicodemus was a teacher in his own right, and yet he did not see Jesus for who He was. However, a dying thief – who had lived a lifetime of sin – saw the Christ on that cross next to him, and he was born again even as he died in this life. I pray that we should all be so desperate for Christ, all so repentant, and all so hopeful of the life that is to come.
Lord God, hear our humble prayers today. We know that through Your Son we are already forgiven of our sins. We therefore see You today, and ask that You remember us. We ask for Your light to shine in our lives, for our lives to be transformed into something new, something that brings You glory. Let us, O Lord, be truly born again. Amen.