Following Jesus • 44 / A question of kingdoms

Read This: John 3:1-8

Nicodemus: We know that you have come from God.
Jesus: Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Like all devout Jews, Nicodemus was seeking the kingdom of God. Scripture pointed to a God-anointed leader, like David, restoring the kingdom to Israel. Since God was with Jesus, Nicodemus wondered if Jesus might be that leader. The Messiah.

Nicodemus was right — Jesus was the Messiah. But he was also wrong, because his understanding of the Messiah was incomplete. The Messiah’s work wasn’t limited to restoring Israel’s political sovereignty. He was here to restore all people to right relationship with God. Everyone.

Nicodemus was an intelligent, well-educated man. His coming to Jesus was a discerning and honorable thing. But his expectations were too small. Jesus helped him see the larger story. Here’s how the conversation went.

Nicodemus: “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

He was investigating if Jesus was the promised Messiah who would restore the “kingdom of God” (Israel).

Jesus: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God is not a national or political thing. It’s a spiritual thing. “Born again” refers to spiritual birth. You have to be spiritually alive to perceive God’s kingdom.

Nicodemus: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

He’s essentially asking, “What do you mean?” Being born a second time is absurd. No one can be born twice. He’s thinking about physical reality, and he’s right.

Jesus: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus knew the Scriptures. He would have immediately recognized “water and the Spirit” as a reference to Ezekiel 36:24-27, which described spiritual regeneration. This is a paradigm shift. Jesus is revealing that our lives and relationship to God are rooted in the spiritual realm. We are spiritual beings who express our spiritual life in the physical world.

Spiritual reality was not new to Nicodemus. The Scriptures spoke of spiritual beings, activities, and the spirit as the life of the body. This was familiar territory. Yet, the nation of Israel had been a reference point for God’s kingdom for over a thousand years. That’s where God’s involvement with the Jewish people had occurred, and, based on biblical prophecy, it’s where they expected it to continue.

Now Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom is not physical, political, or geographical, but spiritual. One is “born” into God’s kingdom spiritually.

This conversation continues, but it features themes not native to our daily conversation. Kingdom. Flesh. Spirit. To provide context, we’ll need to take a quick look at those themes.

Following Jesus • 43 / Answering the right question

Read This: John 3:1-3

A non-sequitur is a statement that doesn’t logically follow from the previous statement.

Nicodemus wouldn’t have come to Jesus if he wasn’t looking for something. He was trying to understand who Jesus was. God must have sent him because he’s doing things only God can do.

Acts of God were nothing new. The Scriptures were full of them, from His creation of the universe to His calling of Abraham, delivering His people from Egypt, guiding and providing for them in the wilderness, protecting them from their enemies — and all the miracles done through Moses and the prophets. The Jewish people knew the power and presence of God.

Now here was this Jesus, saying and doing things that reminded Nicodemus of stories he’d read in Scripture. Stories about prophets seeing and hearing things they were not privy to, causing jars of oil to not run out, multiplying food to feed groups of people, and facing kings down with righteous indignation.

God, the Creator of everything, was known to supernaturally intervene when His people needed provision, protection, or confrontation. And He usually did it through men. Such men served God’s interests and communicated His will. And God had promised to send another such man in the future. A Messiah, who would restore the kingdom to Israel. God’s kingdom. God’s king.

When you read Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’s question, it seems a non-sequitur. Actually, it was exactly what Nicodemus was looking for — but could not yet see.

Following Jesus • 42 / Acting on belief

Read This: John 3:1-2

Jesus’ upending of the temple bazaar produced results. Many who were there believed what He said because of what He did — including Nicodemus, a national leader. Not just a religious leader, he was a member of the elite group who ruled the nation.

Nicodemus didn’t approach Jesus in the temple. He came after hours. Some accuse him of stealth, while others suggest it’s easier to talk in private. Both make sense given the context.

An expert in the Scriptures, Nicodemus was working to reconcile them with what he saw and heard from Jesus. He was also respectful, addressing Jesus as Rabbi and acknowledging that Jesus must have come from God. “No one can do these signs (miracles) unless God is with him.”

This was not flattery. Jesus had done things only God can do. Nicodemus understood this and believed Jesus was from God.

What Nicodemus apparently didn’t believe, and likely couldn’t imagine, was that Jesus was God. No one could comprehend God becoming a man. Why would He? They had a religious system for relating to Him, and Nicodemus was part of it.

Yet, Jesus was doing things only God can do, He referred to God as His Father, and John the Baptist had referred to Him as God’s Son.

Nicodemus was a wise man. The implications of these things were too significant to ignore, so he set an example for us. He went straight to the source and started asking questions.

Following Jesus • 41 / Belief and trust

Read This: John 2:23-25

So much hangs on belief. From substantive decisions to daily choices, what we believe shapes our seventy years — and the people following in our wake.

The question is, what shapes our belief? Ideally, it’s rooted in careful study, reliable testimony, or first-hand experience. Yet, we’re relational and emotional creatures. Many of our beliefs sprout from impressions, assumptions, or traditions.

The religious leaders who confronted Jesus in the temple believed in God, Scripture, and the coming Messiah. But they also seemed to harbor assumptions about their Messiah. It appears they didn’t believe he would be God. Despite the signs and Scriptures indicating Jesus was their Deliverer, they didn’t see it.

But others noticed. They too knew the prophetic Scriptures, and they were watching and listening carefully.

John’s use of the word sign points to the authority and validity of a messenger and his message. Extraordinary things were happening. Stories were circulating. Jesus’ powerful demonstration of authority in the temple matched the authority, character, and moral force attributed to the Messiah in Scripture. These people took note, observed the details, and weighed the evidence. Things lined up, and they were persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah.

It seems clear they believed in Jesus. The language John uses points to valid belief. But the passage also states that Jesus did not believe* in them. Why not?

The narrative tells us He knew what was in their hearts. He likely knew their ideas about the Messiah were not the same as His. And He knew that first impressions don’t grow into mature convictions overnight. Not everyone who picks up an instrument learns how to play. It wasn’t time. There was more to be done.

But it was a start. These people believed. Some of them may even have joined the large group of disciples who followed Jesus throughout His public ministry.

This is how we become disciples. We read, consider, believe, and follow. And in the following, we learn the ways of our Master.

 

* The Greek word for entrust is the same word as believe.