It is quite common for pastors or secretaries in church offices to get phone calls from telemarketers. Often they will ask a question like, “Are you the owner of this business?” How does one respond to a question like that? Try to enlighten them by saying that the church is not a ‘business’? Tell them if they want to speak to the ‘owner’ they can do that anytime they wish – it’s called prayer? Such conversations highlight how different the ways of God’s kingdom are from the ways of the world.
Nicodemus, a member of the ruling Jewish council, discovered that too when he came to Jesus at night and wanted to discuss the ways of God’s kingdom. The ways of God’s kingdom cannot be described in human terms, but must be comprehended, believed and received in Spiritual terms.
Nicodemus was not antagonistic toward Jesus like other members of the Jewish ruling council were. There were things about Jesus and his ministry that genuinely intrigued him and drew him to Jesus, like the miracles Jesus had been doing, which Nicodemus could only conclude were ‘from God’ (v.2). However, in the ensuing conversation, Jesus gently corrected Nicodemus and guided him toward some deeper spiritual blessings of his kingdom.
While Nicodemus had learned and taught that ‘the kingdom of God’ was the nation of Israel, whom God promised to rescue from their enemies by means of a Messiah king, Jesus spoke to him of an eternal ‘kingdom’ that did not belong to this world (v.3, 16).
While Nicodemus was proud to have been born as a child of Israel, Jesus spoke about being ‘born again’ by a spiritual rebirth ‘from above’, very different from a natural birth, which would enable him to ‘see’ and ‘enter’ God’s eternal, spiritual kingdom (v.3-7).
While Nicodemus concluded that Jesus had ‘come from God’, and recognized that ‘God was with him’, Jesus spoke to him about the divine mystery of a God who makes himself known as three persons of the one God.
- As the Father in heaven, whose love for mankind is way beyond the bounds of human capacity and comprehension (v.16).
- As the Son who comes down from heaven, speaks to people about ‘heavenly things’ (v.12), and offers his divinely-human nature to be ‘lifted up’ on a cross for the world’s redemption (v.14-15).
- As a powerful and life-giving ‘Spirit’ whose ways are more mysterious and mighty than the wind that blows in this world (v.8).
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about the divine purpose of an ever-loving God, who does not want to ‘condemn’ sinners to ‘perish’ eternally, but rather wants all people to ‘believe’ in Jesus and what he has done, and ‘be saved’ to ‘eternal life’ (v.16, 17).
Jesus showed Nicodemus that God is truly gracious, in that he makes his divine mysteries known to people through tangible, earthly means; things we can see, hear, taste, touch and experience; things by which ordinary human beings can receive the spiritual blessings of God’s kingdom.
Here is what Jesus told Nicodemus:
- Even though ‘the Kingdom of God’ is an eternal, spiritual kingdom, Jesus said that it is also something that people can ‘see’ and ‘enter’ through a spiritual rebirth (v.3, 5).
- Even though the second birth is a spiritual rebirth ‘from above’ (v.3), it is something that people can know and experience here below. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (v.7); then you can ‘see’ and ‘enter the kingdom of God’. Jesus said that this new spiritual birth is available through the earthly element of water, applied with the audible Word of God in baptism. The earthly means of Word and water convey the mighty working of God’s Spirit in us.
- Even though the ‘love’ of God ‘for the world’ is beyond human comprehension (v.16), it is graciously shown to the world through the earthly means of His ‘only Son’, born of human flesh and blood; and given to live and die for the sins of the world. This saving act was foreshadowed by an earthly event many years before, through a visible bronze serpent that Moses ‘lifted up’ on a pole in the desert, so that people who were bitten by snakes could look to it and live. God’s love is remembered and received anew even today in the same flesh and blood given in and with the earthly elements of bread and wine. The good news of God’s love is told to the world through the visible and audible Word of God, printed on the pages of a Bible, read silently or aloud, proclaimed, explained and explored, or sung in psalms, hymns or spiritual songs.
- Even though the concept of an ‘eternal life’ beyond this world, free from the condemnation that our sins deserve, is not something we can believe – let alone receive – on our own, Jesus promises to give and nurture a saving faith through those same earthly means; words in a book, on human lips, joined with water in baptism, and with bread and wine in Holy Communion. These earthly means graciously convey to us, in very tangible ways, the spiritual blessings of God’s kingdom.
As Jesus led Nicodemus toward the goal of saving faith in him as the Suffering Servant Saviour, it seemed that the challenge for Nicodemus was to learn to see beyond life in this world and to comprehend things from a ‘heavenly perspective’. In many ways, that is our challenge too. We live in this world, as human flesh and blood, with a naturally sinful human nature, surrounded by worldly things and worldly ideas. So, it is very easy for us to be found thinking about things – even spiritual things – from a purely natural, human perspective. In fact, the more we become immersed in life in this world, the opinions of others, the ideas constantly put forward in media, and our own life-experiences, the more foreign the ‘heavenly things’ of God can seem to be.
It’s hard to stay focussed on a ‘Kingdom of God” that is not actually visible, when the pressure all around us is to be busy building and securing our own little kingdoms on earth with house, money, employment, possessions and a good superannuation.
It’s hard to walk in the ways of that kingdom revealed in God’s Word when the world around us seems to be marching to a completely different set of values and ideas.
It is hard to see ourselves as new people, ‘born of the Spirit’, when we all we can see is our earthly life with its weaknesses, temptations and failures.
It is hard to comprehend a ‘God who loved the world’ when people around us – and our own sinful natures – want to blame him for the things that go wrong in the world.
It is hard to live our lives in view of a time of ‘divine judgement,’ a time when God will ask, “What have you done with the life that I gave you?”; or to believe in the reality that without faith in Jesus, people will ‘perish’ eternally, when the general line of thinking in the world around us is that we are all basically good people and will therefore all go to heaven – or to nothing at all – when we die.
It’s hard to keep ‘believing’ in and seeking God’s ‘only Son’ – and his forgiveness – as the only way to be set free from sin’s eternal consequences and to secure our eternal future, when the devil, the world and our own sinful natures keep on telling us that there are more urgent and important things with which to concern ourselves in life.
Like Nicodemus, Christian people can even find ourselves asking, “How can these things be?” in relation to the spiritual truths of God’s kingdom (v.9).
The first challenge for each of us is to ask, “Where am I getting my thinking from?” Is it from the Spirit or from the flesh? The second challenge is to come to Jesus, like Nicodemus did, and learn of the divine mysteries that bring us ‘new birth’ and ‘eternal life’:
- to open our hearts and minds to understand the ‘heavenly things’ of his kingdom;
- to learn that we can indeed ‘see’ God’s kingdom and ‘enter’ it when we are ‘born of water and the Spirit’ in Holy Baptism;
- to open our hearts and minds to the ‘wind’ of the ‘Spirit’ so that it may blow through his Word and daily renew us in heart and life;
- to go daily and prayerfully to God’s Word, so that we can grow in the grace and knowledge of our loving God and of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ;
- to make use of the visible, audible and tangible earthly means that God gives us in this world to nurture our saving faith – his Word, revealed in the Scriptures, and added to the water in baptism, and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
Then, even as we live in the natural world, we will be able to comprehend and receive ‘heavenly things’ through the earthly means that God so graciously gives us. Amen!
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.