Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3 (NIV)
A friend told me about a vacation he was taking to a paradise island. I stopped in to see my travel agent and asked him if he had heard of the place. “Yes, I’ve heard about it,” he said. “But, did your friend tell you that the island has a very strict immigration law. The only way to get on the island is to be born on the island.” I was puzzled by my travel agent’s response. “How can my friend be planning to go there?” I asked. My travel agent replied quietly. Though the room was empty, it was like he didn’t want anyone to hear him, “It appears he has found the secret to being born on the island.”
Today’s verse is from a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Take a minute to read John 3:1-20 to get the verse in context. Nicodemus was a high-ranking Pharisee in Jesus’ time. He probably had come to talk to Jesus at night because he didn’t want any of his friends to know he was visiting with the controversial teacher. We don’t know for sure what Nicodemus came to talk about. But, Jesus’s odd opening statement tells me that Jesus may have known. Nicodemus had questions about heaven. Jesus’s explanation of how someone gets into heaven sounded as strange to Nicodemus as the travel agent’s reply to my question about getting to the island paradise. The answer was not at all what he expected and the process required something that he could not do on his own.
We all have the same blind spot that kept Nicodemus from understanding Jesus. Our understanding of the spiritual world is limited because we have nothing to compare heaven to except the physical world we live in. The phrase, “you must be born again” doesn’t make sense to us because, on earth, people aren’t born again. They are born once, and that’s it. We expect the spiritual world to follow the same rules as the physical world. Except, there is no basis for that expectation.
We look at heaven as if heaven were modeled on, or made to look like, our physical world. The Bible tells us that it is the other way around, our physical world is modeled after the spiritual world. Our physical world may be like the spiritual world in some ways. Much like a plastic model rocket is like a real rocket. If someone had never seen the Saturn V rocket with the Apollo space capsule on top, showing them a model would help explain what it looked like. But, it could not explain the complexity of the real rocket or give any idea of the incredible power it generated at lift off. And, we would never say that the real Saturn V couldn’t get fly to the moon because the model is glued to a stand. We understand that the model is not the real thing. In the same way, Jesus used word models, or metaphors, to help us understand what heaven is like and how we get there.
Nicodemus came to Jesus with the same problem we are trying to solve. All Nicodemus had learned prior to his meeting with Jesus told him that physical death was not the end of the story. Nicodemus believed he had overcome the problem of death because he had lived a good life, as judged by the Jewish law, and that would get him into heaven. What Jesus told him undid his solution. Jesus said, you don’t get into heaven because you have done good things. The only way to get into heaven is to be born there. You live on earth because you were physically born on earth. You live in heaven because you are spiritually born in heaven.
The solution to problem of physical death is to be spiritually born in heaven. When we are born in heaven, we have dual citizenships, one in the physical world and one in the spiritual world. Death is not the end of everything, it is only the end of our time in the physical world. We will leave the physical world and spend eternity in the spiritual world of heaven.
Like Nicodemus, this may sound strange to you. You don’t understand how someone could be born a second time. Over the next two weeks, we will see how Jesus answers that question. For now, give yourself the challenge of reading the Gospel of John in the next two weeks.
Post Script: Sorry I missed last week, my webhost was down. Thanks to Juan Carlos Ortiz for inspiring the opening illustration.