We might well ask, “What is the kingdom of God like?” Jesus was asked that question. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst’” (Luke 17:20-21, NIV). It is evident from Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is not visible because it is not an institution such as the church or any other grouping of people. It is a spiritual entity as we will see when we come to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus one night he already accepted that Jesus was a teacher sent from God because of the miracles he had performed. We might think that Nicodemus would have been given a better welcome. After all he was both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish council. Instead, when Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ praise it was with a seeming impossibility and a mystery. Both of these are essential to understanding the kingdom of God.
“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’” John 3:3-8 (NIV).
Nicodemus took Jesus’ first statement literally and saw immediately that it was something that could not happen. Jesus’ explanation of what he meant makes things both easier and harder. There are many people who take “born of water” to mean baptism. However, the next sentence begins “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” This seems to me to refer to the breaking of the mother’s water that precedes birth. Jesus is simply saying here that physical birth is one necessity for people to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The mystery comes in trying to figure out how “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” There is disagreement, of course, concerning our spiritual natures. It does though seem a clear understanding from Scripture that all people who have flesh also have a spiritual component. This is sometimes designated a soul. The issue is whether the birth brought by the work of the Holy Spirit is an enlivening of the existing soul or the addition of a spiritual entity that did not exist before. We probably cannot resolve this issue. However, we need to keep in mind that our spiritual birth is a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit and one that we do not, at least generally, see the logic of. This is because basically we have nothing in ourselves that would make us worthy of this immense gift.
This does not mean there are not prerequisites for rebirth. In Acts 8:12 (NIV) we are told that faith in the words of Philip brought a new birth to some people. This birth was symbolized by their baptism. “But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” It has been clearly evident since Abraham that faith is the only path to a right relationship with God. That has not changed so it appears that faith in the deity (name, as Luke put it) of Jesus is essential to spiritual birth and entry into the kingdom of God.