Anyone who applies for admission to a university knows that there are entrance requirements. Typically, you have to have an accredited high school diploma. There is often a standardized test minimum score requirement. Sometimes, essays are required as well as participation in extracurricular activities and community service.
In this post, we are going to talk about entrance requirements. Not entrance requirements for admission to college but for admission to the Kingdom of God, or what is sometimes called the Kingdom of heaven.
According to the Scriptures, every human is either “in” the Kingdom or “out of” the Kingdom.
To be “in” is to be considered not only a citizen in good standing — but an actual child of the King.
To be “out” is to be considered a traitor to the throne — an actual enemy of the King.
The stakes for where we stand couldn’t be greater.
So, how does someone get in? What is the fundamental entrance requirement for membership in the Kingdom of God?
We find out in John 3. Let’s begin with verse 1.
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.
Nicodemus had an impressive religious resume.
First, he was a Pharisee, which was one of the four primary branches of Judaism in the first century. The other groups included the Sadducees, who were the wealthy and theologically liberal aristocracy class of Jews who tended to dominate positions of civil power and religious authority. Two other smaller groups were the Zealots, who were political activists, and the Essenes, who functioned like a separatist, monastic community.
The group we hear the most about in the New Testament is the party of the Pharisees.
Those familiar with the Bible hear Pharisee and think “bad.” But the ordinary, working class Jew in that day would have heard Pharisee and thought “good,” because the Pharisees not only were part of the common people’s social class, but also were known as scrupulously outwardly moral and theologically sophisticated.
If the Sadducees were the Roman friendly Jewish liberals, the Pharisees were the patriotic Jewish conservatives.
In addition to being a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was a Jewish ruling council of seventy men which functioned like a combination of our Supreme Court and Congress meshed into one group. To be on the Sanhedrin was a big deal—a huge resume builder.
Nicodemus was an important man with an impressive religious resume.
2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
While it was common for Pharisees to engage Jesus in debate, those encounters ordinarily took place in public and were characterized by a condescending, even acrimonious tone expressed toward Jesus.
But here is a private meeting under the cover of darkness where the Pharisee expresses admiration for Jesus.
Jesus is not flattered but responds to Nicodemus’s compliment with a penetrating, almost surgical strike on Nicodemus’s essential need.
Whatever it was that Nicodemus wanted to discuss, Jesus knew what he needed to hear.
You see, Nicodemus would have assumed that his religious resume would meet the most stringent entrance requirement the Kingdom of God could demand.
He was wrong.
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
In this verse, we discover the fundamental entrance requirement. We must experience a new birth.
Theologically, we call this new birth regeneration... which is what the apostle Paul describes in Ephesians 2:1-5.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
In this text, Paul casts the new birth as being bring brought from death to life — a spiritual resurrection.
But our friend, Nick, doesn’t get it. He still can’t see.
Look in verse 4.
4 “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!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
Here we discover not only the necessity of new birth. We discover the source of new birth—the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is making it clear that in the same way that we cannot birth ourselves physically, we cannot birth ourselves spiritually.
The fundamental requirement for being a member in the Kingdom of God is nothing less than spiritual resurrection. The requirement is not a moral standard to meet and sustain. It is not fundamentally about the theological information we possess, as important as that is. The requirement has nothing to do with our educational, socio-economic, or ethnic status.
Furthermore, this doctrine of regeneration teaches us that we are not just wounded by sin. We are dead in sin. Apart from spiritual resuscitation, we have no pulse. We are dead men and women walking.
But God’s grace is greater.
Look at verse 8.
8 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.”
Here Jesus uses the metaphor of wind to illustrate the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, showing us that just as we do not cause the wind to blow, we do nothing to cause new birth. We can only be born as passive recipients of someone else’s doing.
And just like the only way to detect the presence of the wind is the evidence of sound and swaying branches, the way we detect the presence of the Spirit is when we are given new eyes to see.
I am able to see my sinfulness and my desperate need for a Savior.
I am able to see Jesus not merely as a good teacher but as God himself in the flesh, who came to rescue me from my rightfully condemned condition by his own substitutionary sacrifice on my behalf through death upon a cross.
With new eyes to see and believe upon Jesus, I now see myself differently. I’m no longer condemned but in Jesus, am fully forgiven and unreservedly accepted. I’m no longer an orphan but am an adopted, beloved child of the King.
And so I see God differently, no longer as a demanding tyrant but as a loving Father who is good, wise, strong, and sovereign.
In fact, I begin to see all of life with new eyes. We call this a world-view, where the lens through which I see everything is no longer fashioned by cultural influences but by the revelation of God in the Scriptures. This is why we call a Christian world-view a biblical world-view.
Jesus is showing us that the ability to see with new eyes as a member of God’s Kingdom is single-handedly the work of God’s Spirit.
Nicodemus is still struggling. Look at verse 9.
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
In response to Nicodemus’s continued perplexity, Jesus alludes to two Old Testament passages of which Nicodemus would have been familiar.
One is from Daniel 7,
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed."
As the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision, Jesus would apply the term Son of Man to himself on numerous occasions. He is the King of the Kingdom who would come from heaven through incarnation and return through ascension.
However, in between those who events of coming and returning would be his crucifixion, where he would be lifted up.
Which leads to the second allusion. Having been delivered from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel are in the wilderness and begin to grumble and complain against the LORD. In response to their act of rebellion, we read in Numbers 21 that venomous snakes are sent into the camp as an act of judgement. People are being bit and dying. Moses intercedes and the Lord said to Moses:
8 Fashion a serpent and raise it upon a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze serpent, they lived.
Jesus isn’t only the Son of Man, he is the bronze serpent to whom we are to look, not when snake bit but when sin bit.
For upon a pole that we call a cross, Jesus was lifted up to receive the venom of judgement we deserved so that those who believe may possess the antidote of his blood.
But the pre-requisite is seeing, being able to look and believe with eyes that are opened as the Spirit brings the dead to life through the new birth of spiritual resurrection.
So, what does this mean for us? There are at least three implications.
A Theological Implication
The implication of the necessity of new birth is that regeneration precedes faith. Faith is not the cause of new life. Faith is the evidence of new life.
This leads to a second implication.
A Personal Implication
This implication is the necessity of humility among the regenerate.
After all, the only difference between someone who is a genuine believer and those who are make-believers or unbelievers is the miracle of spiritual resurrection. We were dead. Now we are alive. And it is all by grace and grace alone.
When I find myself looking down upon or despising another sinner, regardless of the sin, remembering that my status in the Kingdom is by pure grace helps bring me back to what we call gospel sanity, which is another way to say gospel humility.
When I detect any trace of prideful, spiritual superiority in my heart, it becomes an opportunity for me to express the deepest repentance and a embrace by faith again the blood of Jesus that was shed for me.
A third implication follows, which is..
A Missional Implication
As we embrace God’s heart to save sinners by highlighting the message of the cross, we rely upon the power of God to bring about the new birth, whether for a friend, a spouse, or a child.
It may seem as though some are too far gone. Too dead. Like the apostle Paul, who before his conversion was the last person on Earth who would be considered a candidate to become a follower Jesus. But God intervened and gave him new eyes, turning the most notorious persecutor of the church into its most illustrious preacher.
Maybe you know somebody like that. An unlikely candidate. Maybe that somebody is you? Maybe even today your eyes are being opened to see.
We need to believe today that nobody is too dead for God to resurrect.
The Intertropical Convergence Zone is known as the ITCZ, which circles the globe near the thermal equator where the northeast and southeast trade winds converge.
One of the most notable characteristics of the Intertropical Convergence Zone is its lack of wind.
In the days when merchant ships relied on wind for their sails, this section of the ocean was particularly hazardous because, if a sailing vessel were caught in this nautical dead zone, it would just sit in the water. Motionless. Unmoved in the midst of an eerie quiet. This could last for days, even weeks, straining the food and freshwater supplies and threatening the very lives of the ship’s crew and passengers.
Sailors called this windless section of sea the doldrums.
I wonder if some of us can relate to the doldrums — not nautical doldrums, but spiritual doldrums. A place of stagnation and lifelessness.
I can totally relate.
If you are in the doldrums now, you may share my deep desire for the wind of God’s Spirit to blow anew.
Like it blew in Acts 4 when the early disciples were pressed by external forces to implore God to act.
In verses 31-34 we read this:
31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. 32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power, the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them.
Oh, how I long for God’s Spirit to blow among us like that.
That we would raise our sails in desperate prayer, imploring the Father to send the life-giving, holy wind of the Spirit to blow, enabling us to see Jesus lifted up for us, in death and in resurrection, that we might be filled with a passion to see others, like us, be brought from death to life as joyful disciples of our Savior-King.
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