3. If being born again is a pre-requisite to entering the kingdom of God, what does this suggest about the nature of this kingdom?
As we continue to consider the discourse that our Lord engaged in with Nicodemus, we want to explore the implications it has on our understanding of the kingdom of God. Although, not the primary emphasis of the discussion, the kingdom of God is at least a consequence of our Lord’s teaching here. Thus, the discussion at least implicitly has some implications on how we define the nature of God’s kingdom. In this task we will be focusing on the following verses of the text:
3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
There are divergent opinions in the Church about the nature of the kingdom of God. As noted previously in our treatment of Christ as king the author’s views on this issue have evolved in hopes of becoming more consistent with all the biblical testimony on the matter. The verses of concern in this particular text are indicative of the primarily spiritual nature that the kingdom of God has in this present evil age. This seems to be fairly evident since the condition of regeneration is required prior to entering or even seeing the kingdom of God, according to our Lord. Thus, in formulating a view of the kingdom of God it should be heavily influenced by this notion that the kingdom of God is distinct from this present evil age.
Initially, it would be appropriate for us to consider the concept of the kingdom of God to Nicodemus during his time in the nation of Israel. The theocratic nation of Israel as an earthly institution was the kingdom of God in this world where the cult (religious) and culture (state) were ruled under the law of God. This kingdom occupied the territory of Palestine where the Davidic King who was God’s anointed ruled from Zion. Upon Israel’s obedience to the stipulations of the Sinaitic covenant the Lord would bless this kingdom causing its enemies to flee before them (Deuteronomy 28:7). As they brought the entire Promised Land under the dominion of God’s rule, expelling the wicked and maintaining holiness they served typologically as the kingdom in the age to come. Nonetheless, Israel never achieved this obedience, the Davidic line failed to enforce the covenant and they were exiled from the Promised Land. Although, the theocracy did not endure God promised a restoration to Israel and they accordingly returned to the land of promise. The restoration of the theocracy, however, would elude them until the coming of the Messiah.
It was perceived in Israel during this time that when the Messiah arrived the Davidic dynasty would be reinstated and the earthly institution would be reestablished (Amos 9:11-15). This expectation would not be fulfilled as it was the Lord’s plan to send the Messiah as a suffering servant (Isaiah 53) who would accomplish redemption (John 17:4-5) instead. The explanation of this “unexpected” coming and subsequent promised return has been manifested by three different types of eschatological views. These three different eschatological views can be categorized into three different headings an under realized eschatology, an over realized eschatology and the biblical view of eschatology. It is not the intent of this study to perform an in depth examination of each of these views, however, we will seek to summarize the strengths and weaknesses relative to a biblical view of the kingdom of God.
Under realized eschatology
An under realized eschatology is best represented by pre-millenarians, especially the Dispensational version. Essentially they are anticipating the same thing that Israel was expecting 2000 years ago. This will be manifested by the return of Christ to the physical land of Palestine who will assume the throne of David in Zion. His rule will last for 1000 years on the earth and will be a restoration of the theocracy where cult and culture are ruled by God’s law. The present age, known as the Church age, is just a parenthesis until God fulfills in a strict literal sense His promises to Israel. The kingdom of God in this scheme is entirely in the future and will commence upon Christ’s return.
The strength of this view is that it takes the biblical material seriously that suggests that we do not live in the age to come, however, are living presently in an evil age. Also, this view properly views the full consummation of the kingdom of God arriving in a cataclysmic event in lieu of a gradual or incremental realization. Nonetheless, it has several weaknesses especially the Dispensational version of the view summarized as follows:
It misunderstands the redemptive historical purpose of the nation of Israel, which was typological in nature. It wrongly identifies the Church as the parenthesis in lieu of the nation of Israel. This incorrect understanding stems primarily due to an inaccurate view of the covenants revealed in the Bible.
The hyper literalistic hermeneutic also persuades them to conclude that the kingdom of God is not currently present on the earth in any form. It must await the return of Christ to have any presence in our age, remaining only spiritually in heaven. Chafer would even go so far as saying that Christ is currently not a king8.
It’s hyper literalistic hermeneutic applied to the Scriptures emphasizes that God’s promise was to give the physical land of Palestine to Israel, in lieu of the heavenly Canaan. When Christ returns they indicate that the theocratic government will resume, as it was revealed in the Mosaic Law, including the resumption of the sacrificial system.
There are many difficulties with the hyper literalistic hermeneutic employed in this view, which leads to most of the incorrect positions. This is especially evident in its understanding of the theocratic nation of Israel. Although this view is correct in concluding that the kingdom of God in this age is spiritual, to say that it is not present in this age and Christ in no manner whatsoever is ruling in this age is problematic (Acts 17:7; Mark 1:14-15). Since the kingdom of God has in some sense been established on earth, this view must be rejected.
Over realized eschatology
An over realized eschatology is best represented by the post-millennial or transformationalist views. Essentially the post-millennial position promotes the notion that the kingdom of God has been realized, since Christ’s ascension. Most modern post-millennialist, similar to transformationalist, believe that the kingdom of God will have gradual success overtime until the entire world will be under the dominion of the kingdom of God. The goal of Christianity in this age is to advance the kingdom of God into all aspects of the culture. Thus, kingdom work is defined as any effort to transform the culture for Christ ranging from politics, business, education, entertainment, and social action. Although there are certainly slight variations amongst this group, they would all be unified in the notion that the role of the kingdom of God is to expand and take dominion over the created order until Christ returns. An extreme form of this is seen in theonomy, which seeks to bring all of life (cult and culture) under the law of God as expressed in the Pentateuch (except for the sacrificial system).
The strength of this view is that it takes seriously Christ’s ascension and corrects the error of the previous in acknowledging that Christ is currently king (Matthew 28:18-20; Revelation 1:5). However, this strength ultimately turns into a weakness and its reaction overcompensates for the errors of Dispensationalism. The main weaknesses can be summarized as follows:
Its desire to emphasize the establishment of the kingdom of God and advance the kingdom in all aspects of life does not account for the spiritual nature that the kingdom has in this age. Rather than taking dominion over the world the New Testament characterizes the life of the Christian in this age as exiles, sojourners or pilgrims. These two principles are fundamentally opposed to each other.
The already and not yet nature of the kingdom of God in this age derived from apparently competing biblical passages (Matthew 6:10; Matthew 4:17) is not dealt with. This view emphasizes only the already aspect of the kingdom being imminent, manifested in its idea that the Church will dominate and be successful. This does not take into account the biblical notion that in this age we suffer for the name of Christ.
The view that the kingdom will be realized incrementally does not conform to the biblical passages that report this transformation will be instantaneous instead. This most probably stems from confusion over the role the Church plays in cult and culture during this age. It incorrectly sees continuity with the theocratic nation of Israel’s charge to purge evil out of land, which is thought to be normative for the Church in this age.
An undeveloped doctrine of common grace seems to be responsible for this views desire to classify kingdom work beyond the limits of the Church. The desire to credit God’s sovereignty and grace with the benefits realized in society is confused with finding its source from the kingdom work transforming culture for the good. This is a confusion of the roles that common grace and special grace serve, which should be differentiated.
The roots of this view go deep into the history of Christianity where the role of the Church or individual Christian was confused. This led to many grievous sins committed in the name of the Church or Christianity in Europe during the Middle Ages. As a former proponent of this view it is our belief that many of the modern proponents of this view are simply reacting to the popularity of Dispensationalism and simply overcorrect their errors arriving at the opposite extreme. However, as noted above there are several formidable reasons that make this view problematic including the spiritual nature of the kingdom in this age inferred by our passage. It is difficult to affirm this view and still affirm the Beatitudes of our Lord (Matthew 5:1-12).
The solution to the errors or weaknesses found in the above mentioned positions, we believe is found in the two kingdoms model. Essentially, the two kingdoms view rests upon two different biblical covenants. These two covenants are the Noahic and the Abrahamic, which are different in nature as summarized in the following;
Noahic: This covenant is made with all of creation, thus it is common to all. God promises not to destroy the earth by means of a flood and to restore the natural order of the seasons. The benefits of rain and sun will be common to all for the blessing and sustenance of life to continue. God also entrusts the state with the power of the sword to administer justice on the earth. Thus, we conclude from the mandate to the state and the blessings of common grace that they are universal to all and for the benefit of all creation.
Abrahamic: This covenant unlike the Noahic is selective in the extent that it applies not to all humanity, but is specifically limited to Abraham and his seed. The benefits of this covenant are redemptive in nature categorized under the label of special grace as opposed to common grace in the Noahic. Although the promise includes the benefits of being a blessing to all the families of the earth, this is further defined later in the New Testament to mean the salvation of the Gentiles from every tribe, nation and tongue.
The kingdoms of this world have been granted authority by God to administer justice within the culture (Romans 13:1-7). Moreover, the gifts of science, education, music, medicine and other cultural benefits are produced by the natural man endowed by his Creator. The people of God who comprise the citizenship of His kingdom are pilgrims in this world and live peaceably under the rule of the state (or are otherwise persecuted) and participate in the benefits of common grace. This is evident from the life of Abraham who according to our passage, met the condition of entering into the kingdom of God in being regenerate, yet he lived as a sojourner in the kingdom of this world looking forward to the age to come (Hebrews 11:8-10).
This distinction between cult and culture, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world have been normative for mankind since the fall. The only unique circumstance where God initiated the elimination of this distinction was the theocratic nation of Israel where the cult and culture was ruled under one kingdom. This is not to say that this one distinction has not been perverted by man where the one kingdom model has been employed. In the past this is seen in “Christianized” Europe during the Middle Ages and presently is manifested in the religion of Islam. However, once theocratic Israel was brought to cessation this assimilated rule of cult and culture will not resume in God’s kingdom until the age to come, which is what Israel foreshadowed. It is our contention that this view finds overwhelming support from the biblical text, which also makes the other paradigms problematic.
When John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod, he doubted if Jesus was the Messiah to come who would restore God’s earthly kingdom. The physical evidence pointed against the fact that the kingdom of God was at hand. Nonetheless, our Lord’s response to John did not appeal to the imminent overthrow of the Roman Empire, but to spiritual signs and wonders performed in his midst (Matthew 11:1-6). Thus, we submit that the presence of the kingdom of God on earth in this present age will be manifested in a spiritual manner, not physical. We look not to the things seen (2 Corinthians 4:17-18) or seek the ordinary signs of a worldly kingdom to identify the kingdom of God. In this age the kingdom is primarily concerned with the salvation of sinners, transferring them from the dominion of darkness into the spiritual kingdom of the Son (Colossians 1:13-14). This is why we are referred to as aliens and exiles (1 Peter 1:2) in the world, which still remains under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19).
Although there remains the blessing of God’s common grace that restrains evil and maintains a relative peace and order, the worldly system will see corruption falling under the influence and control of the evil one. In instances where this perversion of justice is systemic the seed of the serpent will war against the seed of the woman and persecute her. However, our response is not to call down thunder from the heavens (Luke 9:51-56) nor to take up arms and fight. Our response is to take up our cross (Luke 9:23-27) and not repay evil for evil (1 Peter 3:9). We are to endure these suffering for we know that this world is passing away (1 John 2:17; 1 Corinthians 7:31). Before the end, however, the kingdoms of this world will rise up against each other and we will be persecuted (Luke 21:10-12). This is a quite different picture than the global supremacy of the Church prior to our Lord’s return as the post-millenarian would suggest. Our Lord likened the days of His return to the time of the flood or Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17:20-37), which were periods of great wickedness and depravity.
It is evident from the testimony of the Scriptures that the Church in this age is not going to be the bastion of the successful, the powerful, the famous, nor the wise. The more appropriate depiction is that of the pilgrim dwelling in a foreign land until we have been called home to that eternal city. Yet, we are not helpless during our temporary stay, but have been equipped with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3). Those who call on the name of the Lord, who have been entrusted as stewards of the heavenly faith on earth, are nourished during their journey with Word and Sacrament. These signs are the evidence that the kingdom of God does have presence on this earth, despite what the Dispensationalist would say. The preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments are the in breaking of the age to come on this present evil age. They sustain the redeemed of our Lord who are citizens of the heavenly city and have been spiritually reborn, yet dwell on earth in the Church.
In conclusion, we concede that we were barely able to scratch the surface on this significant topic, which has such a great influence over our faith and practice. Nonetheless, it is our contention that a biblical view of the kingdom of God in this age will be marked by the following:
Although the kingdom of God is present in this age, it is a spiritual kingdom concerned with spiritual things. Essentially the Church is the kingdom of God on earth entrusted with the signs of the kingdom (Word and Sacrament) and comprised of the spiritually re-born citizens of the heavenly country.
The realm of culture is not under the control or jurisdiction of the Church or the kingdom of God in this age. These are distinct kingdoms, however under the sovereign control of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The transformation of the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of our God and of His Christ will be a cataclysmic event at the consummation of the age. In the age to come the realms of cult and culture will once again be under the dominion of the kingdom of God. All those who do not met the condition to enter this kingdom, namely be born again, will not dwell within this kingdom. They will be cast out of the heavenly Jerusalem with the dogs and suffer eternal torment.
Thus, we submit that the two kingdoms model provides the most accurate reflection of what the Scriptures teach. It provides the proper balance that is lost in the other paradigms, providing the proper perspective for the Christian life.
8 Keith A Mathison, Dispensationalism Rightly Dividing the People of God? (Phillipsburg, NJ, P&R, 1995) p 111