Monday, October 10, 2011

Water, Spirit and the Kingdom of God


“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Nicodemus was confused. Why would Jesus say to him, a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council and a teacher of Israel, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Nicodemus surely knew about the promise of God’s kingdom; it was his job to know. But being “born again”? Well, that was something for Gentiles who wished to become part of the Jewish faith. When they converted, they received baptism, a ritual bath, and were considered as children newly born to the faith. But Nicodemus was already a faithful Jew and heir to the promises God made to Israel. So why talk to him about being born again?
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)
This new birth Jesus talked about was a birth of water and the Spirit, and necessary to enter into the kingdom of God. But what He said next was even more surprising to Nicodemus: “You must be born again.” It was similar to what He had already said, but it was also different. Before, Jesus spoke generically, “Unless one is born again …,” and Nicodemus could think He was referring merely to Gentile converts. But now Jesus made it direct and personal: “You must be born again,” with “you” in the plural form (in the Greek text), referring not just to Nicodemus, but to every Pharisee and, indeed, to every Jew. It was not just Gentiles who needed a conversion experience, the Jews needed it, too.

“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asked (John 3:9). Now he was really confused.

Jesus said, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? (John 3:10).

Nicodemus should have understood this, but he didn’t. There was another well-known promise about the time of Israel’s restoration, which was indeed the time of kingdom fulfillment. God spoke it though Ezekiel the prophet.
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24-28)
God used the figure of water as a metaphor of cleansing for all the sins of Israel. He promised them a new heart and a new spirit — His Spirit — not just to be with them but to be in them, so that they would now be able to live faithfully as His covenant people. This is the essence of new birth.

The kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God on earth as in heaven, is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, but Jesus’ message to Nicodemus was that even Jews needed to be converted to it, no less than all the other nations. He reiterated this great need even to His disciples.
Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” (Luke 18:17)
The idea of becoming as little children is that they are completely dependent. Likewise, we must be completely dependent upon God if we are going to be a part of His kingdom. (See also The Kingdom of Little Ones). This dependency is through faith in Jesus, as we will see in the next post.