I first saw the Epcot globe in the summer of 1984 when my family visited on a vacation. It was still a new feature in a new theme park at Disney World in Florida, having opened in 1982. That huge globe, pictured above, was for me, an impressionable ten-year old, an amazing sight to see. What really sparked my curiosity, though, was the thought of what was inside. Would I be able to enter? Could anyone enter? Or was access restricted for VIPs?
These questions are quite similar to what Jesus discusses in John 3:1-21. In that passage, we’ve already learned that Jesus is having a conversation with a man named Nicodemus. How will Jesus respond to the greeting (which we learned about here) from Nicodemus, the powerful religious leader who meets with Jesus to talk with Jesus about the miracles Nicodemus heard Jesus performed. Look at John 3, verse 3.
Jesus just jumps right into the deep end of the theology pool. He talks about the Kingdom of God and who can see it. That alone is interesting. The Kingdom of God, Jesus insinuates, is invisible. As we’ll see, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to respond to this. As a passionate Jewish leader, however, Nicodemus was well aware of his nation’s history, that Israel was a once powerful kingdom, with glory days under the reigns of King David and Solomon. The Kingdom of God, in the Jewish mindset, was very much a piece of land, a geographical area in the middle east: Palestine, the Promised Land, Israel, and its centerpiece was Jerusalem, also known as Zion, the City of God, with God’s house, the temple, as its most important feature. God’s Kingdom was something you could touch. But here Jesus suggests something different, that no one can see the Kingdom, except for those who go through a bizarre change. They must be born again, born from above.
I wish I could see the look on Nicodemus face when he responds to Jesus in verse 4.
Nicodemus is no dummy. He knows that the literal interpretation of Jesus’ words is impossible. It is actually laughable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Nicodemus started laughing at Jesus’ image of adults being born again. It could be that Nicodemus laughed a mocking derisive laugh. It could be that Jesus himself said “You must be born again” in a joking way, trying to get a laugh. In other words, Jesus could have been telling a joke here, though not in the sense that the joke was false. Jesus wasn’t kidding, or telling a lie. He was speaking figuratively, not literally, raising the image of the impossible, to get at the possible, or, really, to get at the necessary, which is a new way of thinking about and seeing the Kingdom of God.
Did Nicodemus understand this new way of thinking about the Kingdom? No. Jesus explains it in verses 5-8.
Jesus initially said “No one can see the Kingdom unless they are born again”; now he says “No one can enter the Kingdom.” Jesus’ concern is not just that people can see the invisible, he wants something so much more. He wants us to participate in it. That means that Jesus is not interested in people just standing on the outside as observers. He wants people to be able to enter in. Having one’s eyes opened to be able to see the invisible is amazing, but seeing is only part of the good news Jesus teaches Nicodemus. Think about it this way: imagine you could see Jesus, but you were unable to reach him, talk with him, or interact with him in any way. What kind of relationship would that be?
This “seeing vs. entering” got me thinking about a construction sight. First you see construction vehicles preparing the ground, clearing trees and rocks, moving dirt and leveling the space. You wonder what is going on when you drive by. What are they building? After the sight is prepared, the construction company builds a huge wall around the construction site. You can now see nothing. You feel the tension of knowing that something is happening, but you can’t see in. There is no way to satisfy your curiosity. Then the company installs plexiglass viewing stations in the wall, and now you can see! You can watch their progress day by day, week by week. You can see cranes from far away as you drive nearby. Thankfully, now that you can see inside, because of the viewing stations, you watch as they are building a giant globe. Think huge, like the globe at Epcot Center. Now a new curiosity fills your mind. Why a globe? You notice they have built an entrance, but you can’t enter. You’re stuck behind the glass. You want to know what will be happening inside the globe. Finally, after many months, when construction is complete, sadly the wall stays up, and all you can do is watch. Then shockingly, some people are allowed in, they enter the globe, shut the door behind them, and they come back out excited and celebrating. What happens inside the globe? You can see, but you are not allowed to enter. That is seeing without entering, and it is highly frustrating.
Except that Jesus says to Nicodemus, there is a way to not only see the Kingdom of God, there is also a way to enter. Jesus is answering Nicodemus’ confusion about being born again. Jesus says, “Actually, you need to be born of water and the Spirit. That’s what I mean when I referred to being born again.” What Jesus is getting at is that there are two kinds of birth. The first is common to any human. We are born in water. The amniotic fluid in which children grow in utero. One of the most common signs of childbirth beginning is when a pregnant mother’s water breaks. It is through water, then, that we are born as humans.
Jesus says to Nicodemus that there is another kind of birth that is necessary to enter the Kingdom. Being born again, or born from above, is to be born of the Spirit. Jesus said it is like the wind, which you cannot see, but you know it is blowing. You hear it, you feel it, you see its effects. The same is true with the Spirit. You cannot see the Spirit, but we know the Spirit works because the Spirit changes lives. Being born of the Spirit, then, happens in an unseen, spiritual way. But that birth is vitally important, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”
After this further explanation by Jesus, however, Nicodemus is still confused. He says in verse 9, “How can this be?” So Jesus continues explaining things, and I think Jesus might still be joking around. Look at verses 10-13.
Woah. Is Jesus joking with Nicodemus, or is Jesus being harsh? Maybe Jesus was blown away, “How can you not know this?” as if it was so obvious that a religious scholar wouldn’t know this important truth? In verse 11, it does seem that Jesus is frustrated at least somewhat. But he gets around to explaining that he is talking about heavenly things, not earthly things. He is speaking of a spiritual reality that transcends the physical reality. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is more than just buildings and geographical nations. Then in verse 13 he refers to himself as “the Son of Man, who came from heaven.”
That’s a bold claim, and yet it is totally consistent with how Nicodemus already described Jesus in verse 2. When I mentioned Nicodemus’ description of Jesus in verse 2, I suggested that it is hard to know if Nicodemus fully believed what he was saying, or if he was just buttering Jesus up. Now here in verse 13, Jesus is saying, “I am the Son of Man who is from heaven.”
Think about that: “Son of Man…from heaven.” Do you see how that might come across as odd or even contradictory? Shouldn’t Jesus be calling himself “the Son of God from heaven”? Why “Son of Man”? Jesus will use that title for himself more frequently than any other title. In fact, earlier in our study we heard him use this title in John chapter 1, verse 51. The title of “Son of Man” comes from the prophecy of Daniel, chapter 7, verse 13, where the “son of man” is used to describe the Messiah who would come. As Jesus continues talking to Nicodemus, he uses this title again, but in a prophecy of his own.
We’ll look at what Jesus says in the next post.
Photo by Nathan Langer on Unsplash