I want to talk about the Kingdom of God. What does it mean to see the Kingdom or enter the kingdom, and how might we do that, for that matter? And the obvious place to start with that is Chapter 3 of John’s gospel. So, at the risk of taxing your patience, I’m going to read some of that as well. We’ll get to chapter 15 in due course.
John 3:1- 17
There was a man, a Pharisee, Nikodemus by name, an elder of the Jews; he came to Jesus by night and said to him “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher that has come from God, for no-one could do the signs that you do unless God was with him.” Jesus answered and said to him “Amen, Amen I say to you unless one is born from above, he is incapable of seeing the Kingdom of God.” Nikodemus said to him “how can a man be born when he is old? Is he capable of entering his mother’s womb and being born a second time?” Jesus answered him “Amen, Amen I say to you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he is incapable of entering the Kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going. It is the same way with everyone who is born of the spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him “How can these things be?” Jesus answered “you are a teacher of Israel and you do not know? Amen, Amen I tell you that we speak about what we know, and we witness to what we have seen, and you people do not accept our witness. If I have spoken to you about earthly things and you people do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things? No one has gone up into heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the son of man. And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have life.”
For in the same way God loved the world, giving his only natural son, so that everyone believing in him may not be destroyed, but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world in order to condemn the world, but that it might be saved through him.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight,O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
I’m rather sticking my neck out here, because interpreting John 3 is notoriously difficult. Not least because the conversation starts out as a you (singular) and me conversation and soon becomes a you (plural) and us conversation. The ‘we’ may reflect the fact that Jesus was looking forward to a time when the church was established, and there would be opposition from the Pharisees. On the other hand, the ‘we’may refer to Jesus and John the Baptist (who both talked about the Kingdom) or more likely it may refer to Jesus and His father.
And this passage may not be the most obvious one to use when talking about the Kingdom of God. In the synoptic gospels –Matthew, Mark & Luke – Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom. In John’s gospel the Kingdom is only mentioned here in chapter 3 and when Jesus is confronting Pilate. Still, this passage is ‘oft’ quoted’, and I think it has some valuable lessons to teach us.
John’s gospel is the most terrific thing. (Not that I’m saying the rest of the Bible isn’t!). But John’s gospel is carefully constructed – crafted one might say. In John’s gospel there are seven signs or miracles that he records, and exactly seven I AM sayings – “I AM the good shepherd” etc. And this passage from John 3 is carefully crafted as well.
To summarise that passage we read, I think two things are going on here. In the first instance Jesus is straight forwardly answering Nicodemus’ implied question – How do you do the signs that you do?
Secondly,John is making plain, as he is always doing throughout his gospel, that Jesus is no ordinary man. And that John the Baptist was, for that matter, an ordinary man. With regards to Jesus, John the Gospel writer sets out his stall quite plainly in the prologue to his gospel in chapter 1. Verse 1 “And the word was God,this was the one who was with God in the beginning.” Verse 14 “And the Word was made flesh”. Couple those two statements together and you see what John was emphasising. Jesus was the Light, he was God. As opposed to his view of John the Baptist: “He was not the light, this was the one who came merely as a witness to the light.”
At the end of John’s gospel in chapter 20 he tells us that there is a whole bunch more that he could have included in his gospel, but he gave us what he did “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life.” This is really the theme running through John’s gospel – that Jesus is the unique Son of God; And that believing in him leads to eternal life. Actually, just to get technical for a moment, in Greek there is no distinction between a simple present and a continuous present – I kick and I am kicking. So, it is just as valid to translate that verse as “so that you may goon believing, and going on believing you may go on having life.”
Now what you find throughout John’s gospel is a series of encounters where someone makes a statement about Jesus which doesn’t give the full picture about him, and there follows a passage where John points out that Jesus is much more than what that person has said.
The woman at the well in chapter 4 sees that Jesus is a ‘prophet”, and the following conversation illustrates that he is much more than a prophet. And, here in chapter 3, Nicodemus says that Jesus is a “teacher sent by God”, and John is at pains to point out that Jesus is much, much more than just a teacher! Nicodemus is trying to have a teacher to teacher conversation. But the trouble is Nicodemus is a teacher who doesn’t understand the things of the Spirit.
Ok, now let’s look at “born again” or “born from above”. Jesus says that unless one is born “anothen”– that’s the Greek word – you cannot see the Kingdom of God. And anothencan indeed mean both ‘from above’ and ‘over again’. The nearest we might have in English is when we say “take it from the top”, which depending upon the context might mean start again, or literally take it from the top of whatever it is.
Which are we to choose, then? The NIV opts for “born again”,the NRSV chooses “born from above.” Which one is right? Can we even judge one way or another? For me the answer to that lies in the very ambiguity. If you read through John’s gospel you will find lots of places where Jesus makes an ambiguous statement,the audience runs off after the wrong meaning, and that produces an opportunity for Jesus, or sometimes John the evangelist, to explain what he really means. So, for example, we get the audience saying, “it has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to rebuild it in three days?”; or “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”; or “You are not yet fifty years old, and yet you have seen Abraham?”.
So, my view is that because Nicodemus runs after the ‘born again’ option, what Jesus isr eally saying is that “unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Ok, so, if we are not ‘born again’, we must be ‘born from above’ then? I don’t think so!
Do you remember what we read? “No one has ascended into heaven, except the one that descended from heaven, the Son of God.” Jesus is unique. There is only one who came down from heaven,so there is only one who can go up into heaven.
So then, I really have no way of seeing the Kingdom of Heaven, let alone entering it? We seem to have a dilemma here, don’t we! Perhaps I really will have to wait until I die to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven? But isn’t the whole point that the kingdom is at hand? Was that only for the time that Jesus, the king, was on earth?
I think John’s way to resolve the dilemma is that if I can enter into Jesus then I can enter into Heaven. If I am in Jesus, I can go where Jesus goes!
Which gets us to the other passage we read. Jesus is talking to his disciples at the Last Supper and says, “Abide in me.” He says,“Abide in me as I abide in you.” And as we heard he uses the illustration of a vine into which we are grafted, with the sap flowing through us. And he says “if you abide in me, and my teaching (my rhema) abides in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. That’s a pretty outrageous statement, isn’t it? But Jesus said it, so perhaps we should take it seriously.
You see in away that answers that question we had at the beginning – how did Jesus do the signs he did? And I think the answer is that when Jesus needed to do a sign He went into Heaven and fetched it! Or perhaps He looked into Heaven and copied what his Father was doing! He was the only one who had come down from Heaven. But if we can live in the one who came down from Heaven, then we have access to all that Jesus had.
So, we can ask for whatever we want? Yes, but only if we abide in Jesus! And remember that Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing. That’s why when I get going in the morning I say “What are you doing today, Father? Where are you going? Can I come too? What are you building today,Father? Can I help you build it? What are you saying today, Father? Can I share it?” And if that sounds very childish – well, I hope it does! Perhaps I should have said ‘Daddy’ instead of ‘Father.’
Actually, Paul in his epistles says a very similar thing. If you read his epistles you will find that he often uses the phrase “in Christ Jesus.” I know that he also uses the phrase “Christ in me”, but everything works both ways in the Kingdom! As we heard, we abide in Jesus and he abides in us. The great advantage of regarding yourself as being “in Christ” is that we see that all of us are in Christ together! We may be a motley lot, just like the disciples were, but there is only one Jesus, and so we are together in him, or we are not in him at all!
Ok, so this all poses the question, “how to we enter into Jesus?” And the answer that John gives us is by believing in him. It’s a bit more than believing that he existed, or that he still exists! It’s more like believing into him. The belief in itself brings life. In the same way that God loved the Jews in the desert, so that he showed Moses that he should lift up the serpent in the desert, and those that looked on it could have life and not death, so in the same way God loved the world, so that he gave us His Son, so that all who believe into him may have eternal life instead of death.
Believe that you are in Him. It’s a faith thing, and it’s the work of the Holy Spirit to bring that about. Which kind of gets us full circle. In John’s gospel the Spirit was only given after Jesus ascended to the Father, which happened on the cross. Jesus was ‘lifted up’ on the cross just as the serpent was lifted up by Moses. And it was his returning to the Father that brought the Holy Spirit to the Church. As Jesus says in another place in his talk at the Last Supper “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” So perhaps when talking to Nicodemus Jesus really was looking forward to the time of the Church, and to the time after Jesus was ‘lifted up’ on the cross, after he had ascended to the Father, when, because of all of that, we could be born of ‘water and the Spirit.”
On the day of Pentecost Peter told the crowd that they should repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus and they would receive the Holy Spirit. They would share in the Holy Spirit who had been given to the church on that day. Pentecost, which we will be commemorating in a few weeks’ time is about the Spirit filling the church, the new temple. All the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Just as God came and took up residence in the Tabernacle, and then the Temple, in the Old Testament, so at Pentecost God came and took up residence in the Church, his new Temple, through his Spirit. Paul says in first Corinthians “Don’t you know that you (plural) are the temple of the Holy Spirit?”
That was for the church, but for us as individuals Jesus puts it more simply in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. He simply says ask the Father for his spirit, and He will give it to you. And he tells them parables like the man who goes to his friend at midnight to ask for a loaf of bread and has to go on knocking; or the woman who keeps on pestering a judge until she receives justice. ‘Keep on asking and you will keep on receiving, keep on seeking and you will keep on finding’ is a perfectly good translation of Matthew 7:7. Ask the Father for his Spirit every day.
OK. Summary time. Ask the Father for his Spirit. The work of the Spirit is to place you into Christ Jesus. Abide in Christ Jesus and you can go where Jesus goes. In Jesus you can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Father, we are all at different stages on this walk with Jesus, which he sometimes called ‘the Way.” Some of us will have heard this and it will not have made any sense at all. We pray that your Holy Spirit will lead them into the real truth – not necessarily what I have just said, but the real truth in Jesus. Some of us will be believing in Jesus but be longing to know Him in an intimate way, to abide in him. We pray that their belief in Jesus will help them to realise that they were placed into Christ Jesus 2000 years ago on the cross when Jesus was lifted up, because he drew all men to himself. And for all of us who have trouble believing we pray oh Lord we believe, help our unbelief. We pray that we may all be filled evermore fully with Your Holy Spirit, so that we may walk evermore closely with Jesus. Amen.
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