[Nicodemus] came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, 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 replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”John 3:2-3
Nicodemus was a religious leader who came to tell Jesus that many of his religious peers thought that he was truly from God. That sounds really good but there’s a problem: He came to tell Jesus this under cover of night. Nicodemus and his religious friends believed in Jesus but at the same time they were confused about who Jesus really was. If you really understand something and believe in it there’s no need to be secretive. Jesus could see that even with all of his religious training, Nicodemus still didn’t understand who he really was. John lets us be flies on the wall for their conversation because like Nicodemus, even if we believe in Jesus and have gone to church for many years, we too can miss what God was really doing by sending his Son.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” I don’t know exactly what Nicodemus was thinking but I wonder if he had these two questions: “What is the kingdom of God and what does it mean to be born again?” Let’s discover the answer to those questions according to John.
What is the Kingdom of God?
Jesus did not come to be a good religious teacher. Nor did he come just to die for our sins as individuals. He came for something even bigger: He came to establish the Kingdom of God on the earth. If you read the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, you’ll see that Jesus talks about the kingdom ALL THE TIME.
Most who read this today do not really understand what it’s like to be under the rule of a king and his kingdom. If someone proclaimed himself a king today, he would be laughed at or get in trouble with the government. (Interestingly, both things happened to Jesus.)
A king is an absolute ruler who expects loyalty from all who proclaim allegiance to his kingdom. No other government, relationship, or passion can have greater power or priority in a person’s life. King and kingdom rule all. I know this sounds severe – and that’s because it is. Such was the reality of any king, kingdom, and its citizens. And this absolute rule applied if the king was good or if the king was bad. Fortunately for Christ’s followers, as we read on we’ll see that our king and his kingdom are so so good.
Is Jesus your king?
Many religious people see him as a teacher. Almost anyone is okay with him being their savior. But he came to be our king. He came to establish the kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God
Members of God’s kingdom live in an alternative society from the world. Jesus is king and it’s an upside down kingdom. The things that bring prestige and success in our world don’t work in the kingdom that Jesus established. (See the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7 for more on this.)
Are you a part of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish on the earth? How can a person even know if they are in the kingdom?
You must be born again
Citizenship in our world today may be obtained by birth in a country or by taking a test and pledging allegiance. Citizenship in the kingdom of God requires that a person be totally reborn. If you read on in John 3 you notice that Nicodemus was very confused by this concept – maybe you are too! Let’s break it down. Jesus explains it like this:
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”John 3:5-8
Although Nicodemus still struggled to grasp Jesus’ words, he answered two important questions about the kingdom of God in these verses: 1) How do we get into the kingdom? And 2) What is life in the kingdom like?
How do we get into the kingdom?
Short answer: We are born again of water and Spirit.
This rebirth involving water and the Holy Spirit is a clear allusion to baptism. Baptism is so much more than being dunked under water or some religious ceremony. Peter preached this in the very first sermon of the church: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) Water, Spirit, and the forgiveness of sin (salvation!) come together in baptism by the power of Jesus. Paul wrote in Romans 6:1-5 that baptism is participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, just as Jesus died and was buried only to rise again, we enter his kingdom by dying to our sins, being buried under water, and rising to new life. Rebirth in the kingdom of God!
You must be dead before you get buried
Have you ever thought about how important it is that Jesus actually died on the cross. If he only passed out and didn’t die, then our hope for resurrection is dashed because he didn’t actually rise from the dead (Paul explores this in 1 Corinthians 15).
Likewise, it’s essential that before we are buried in the waters of baptism, we die to the sin that rules our lives. After the conversation with Nicodemus, John writes about what being born again means. He explains that if we truly believe in him (John 3:16) we must come out of the darkness and into the light (John 3:19-21). We need to be open about our sinfulness and commit to live in the truth before we can be buried in the waters of baptism and saved by God’s grace.
Death to sin, burial in the water of baptism, and resurrection to new life: this is the path to rebirth into the kingdom of God.
What does life in the kingdom look like?
One last thought from Nicodemus: After baptism, you might think that life will be much easier. And in some ways that is true. Living in sin is stressful and difficult! But life in the kingdom is difficult in a different way. Jesus explains this to Nicodemus when he says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” The reborn life of a Christ follower is a windblown life. You aren’t the king anymore. You aren’t ultimately in charge. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in control and they are wild and untamable and ambitious in their desire that all people should be saved. Following the Spirit means you’ll get blown around from time to time as God changes your plans to accomplish His will.
But this is the best possible life. It’s worth dying for and being reborn so your life can be filled with the greatest purpose: changing the world one soul at a time by bringing others into the kingdom of God.