Jesus said to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
Growing up in an Evangelical environment, I heard a lot about being born again. It was typically associated with saying a prayer of repentance and “asking Jesus into your heart”. After doing these things you were assured that you had been “saved”. (Translation: “You will now go to heaven when you die.”)
I noticed however that lots of people who said the prayer struggled with believing and accepting that they were in fact, saved. Some people had a kind of spiritual/mystical encounter that seemed to validate the experience for them, but lacking this, many questioned their salvation.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for repentance and salvation, but I don’t think this understanding of salvation is what Jesus was really talking about with Nicodemus at all.
First - The Kingdom of God
Lets establish that when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew puts it, he wasn’t generally talking about a place you might or might not go after you die. N.T. Wright (1) and others have shown convincingly that the Kingdom of God Jesus spoke so much about is the realm in which God has authority both on earth and in heaven. Jesus said that it was “at hand”, and “among you”, and “within you”. The Kingdom of God, then, is here and now, although many people (many Christians included) don’t live as if it is. Its certainly not here in its fullness, but nevertheless, the Kingdom that Jesus is now ruling and reigning over is already here on earth, manifesting in people who submit to him.
Second – Being Born Again
When Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to see or enter the Kingdom of God he would need to be “born again”, what was Jesus getting at? Well, what happens whenever a baby is born in any particular nation or kingdom? That baby becomes a citizen of that nation by birth. At birth the baby enters the kingdom he or she is born in, and when its little eyes open they see this same kingdom for the first time. Nicodemus was born a citizen of Israel. He had entered and seen and become a citizen of Israel, yet Jesus tells him that he must be born again to see and enter the Kingdom of God. This tells us that God’s Kingdom absolutely cannot be associated with any earthly nation or kingdom.
Every nation has its own constitution, customs and laws. Every child grows up and learns to live according to these societal norms. Typically, people remain citizens of the nation of their birth until they die, at which point their name is removed from the citizenship roles of that nation. This leads me to a question.
When does a follower of Jesus die?
Third – Baptism
Paul wrote, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
According to Paul, when I as an American citizen was baptized, I died. And when I came up from the water, I began a new life, in a new Kingdom, with an entirely new citizenship, and...
As a minister, when I baptize someone, I am functioning as a benevolent executioner.
I am putting the person to death, in order that they might be set free from their earthly citizenship. And when I lift them up out of the water, by the Spirit of God, they are raised from the dead into newness of life.
The last breath they take before I put them under the water is the last breath they take as a citizen of the kingdoms of this world, and the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the breath of a newborn citizen in the Kingdom of God. It’s like the first breath a baby takes after birth and they are… born again. (2)
Through death they are now set free from their prior citizenship, with its customs, constitution and laws. This is necessary for them to be able to see and enter God’s Kingdom. (Their name may still be on the citizenship roles of the country of their first birth, but according to Paul, they have died to that so that they can begin walking in newness of life.)
Fourth – What Now?
After becoming a citizen of God’s Kingdom we must learn the ways of this Kingdom. I propose the following analogy to the government of the United States.
In America, much of Christianity has capitulated to our national government as the means to living and being in the world. I see more Christians getting very worked up over how to interpret the U.S. Constitution than I see seeking to live by the Sermon on the Mount. If what I am proposing is correct, this is nothing short of idolatry.
John writes, “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19) All worldly governments function under the power of the evil one. If we were meant to consider ourselves as dual citizens (part American, part Christian) then baptism as dying makes no sense. (3)
No, as followers of Jesus we are to be born again as citizens of God’s Kingdom, subject to King Jesus and his constitution, bylaws and laws. Unfortunately, for too long we’ve preferred to pass judgment on and amend the Sermon on the Mount rather than seeking to live by it as citizens of God’s Kingdom here and now.
I’ll finish with a quote from Greg Boyd’s important book, The Myth Of A Christian Nation. “Consider these questions: Did Jesus ever suggest by word or example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar? Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day? Did he ever work to pass laws against the sinners he hung out with and ministered to? Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected? Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God?”
(1) See Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T.Wright
(2) I’m not suggesting salvation by baptism here. I’m suggesting that Jesus wasn’t even talking with Nicodemus about salvation, at least not salvation in the way Evangelicals generally conceive of it. Jesus was talking with Nicodemus about seeing and entering the Kingdom of God on earth, i.e. submitting to God’s government as distinct from any earthly nation’s government. I’m also not contesting the long-held understanding of baptism as identification with Christ’s death.
** See Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-40)
(3) Baptism, and infant baptism in particular became a means to becoming a citizen in many European countries. While this had some beneficial effects culturally, it is the inverse of what I believe Jesus and Paul were envisioning when speaking of new birth and baptism. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2007/02/baptism-and-citizenship