WORTHY OF THE KINGDOM

by Thomas W. Finley


Chapter 7-3 (contd.)

Enter the Kingdom in John 3:5

The seventh verse to use the term "enter the kingdom" (or here, "enter into the kingdom") is John 3:5.

Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3:3-5).

This passage has caused difficulties for many expositors because it seems that baptism is here linked with entry into the Kingdom of God. We will not here go into the many various explanations of this passage, but just lay out a simple case for our understanding of the passage. The context is that of a ruler of the Jews, Nicodemus the Pharisee, coming to Jesus in order to learn from Him. Nicodemus believed that Jesus was a teacher from God, but came seeking to learn more. Jesus’ immediate response to his inquiry was: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Jn. 3:3). Jesus was telling Nicodemus that a new birth was needed for him to perceive anything about the Kingdom of God. Jesus was here telling Nicodemus of his real need: the spiritual birth, whereby the life of God is imparted to man. It was after Nicodemus manifested perplexity at another birth that Jesus told him that he must be born of water and the Spirit. Then, Jesus went on to explain: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (Jn. 3:6).

The stress in Jesus’ response to Nicodemus was the matter of a spiritual birth (in the human spirit) by the Spirit of God. Jesus mentioned the matter of being born five times in verses 3-8. We interpret this birth to mean an entry into the present stage of the Kingdom of God, the invisible spiritual Kingdom (Rom. 14:17; Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13). Every Christian knows that a spiritual rebirth is needed in order to be in the Kingdom presently, and in order to “see” (perceive) the spiritual reality of such a Kingdom. A life of religious rules, such as Nicodemus kept as a Pharisee, is insufficient. There must be a new birth deep within man, in his human spirit.

The complication of this passage comes in verse five when Jesus speaks of “born of water and the Spirit.” But, please note that Jesus mentions the water only once in the five references to being born in this passage. He mentions “born of the Spirit” three times. And, He seems to shorten His reference to being “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5) to just “born of the Spirit” in verses six and eight.

It seems most natural, considering that Jesus’ audience was only Nicodemus, that “water” refers to John’s baptism. John had been baptizing for some time and Nicodemus was surely aware of it. It is doubtful at that point that Nicodemus had undergone John’s baptism, because the Pharisees later claimed that (to their knowledge) “no one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him.” (Jn. 7:48) So, in Jesus’ counsel to Nicodemus, He stated that John’s baptism was needed for this new birth. What is John’s baptism? The Scripture terms it as a “baptism of repentance” (Acts 19:4). Further, Luke tells us that John the Baptist came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk. 3:3). This certainly does not mean that those who were simply water baptized by John were forgiven. Only the blood of Christ can obtain forgiveness (Rom. 3:25; Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:12-11-14, 22). No baptism can cleanse us (1 Pet. 3:21). But, John’s ministry did introduce Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn.1:29).

John’s ministry was to “make ready the way of the Lord” (Lk. 3:4), to introduce the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 3:16). “I baptized you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt. 3:11) John’s ministry announced the Kingdom and told of the coming King of Israel (Matt. 3:2-3). John stated: “And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” (Jn. 1:31) So, John’s baptism was to produce recognition that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Scripture records this thought again in Acts, where Paul is quoted: “And Paul said, ‘John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him, who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’” (Acts 19:4) So, the ministry of John’s baptism was repentance – a “change of mind” – concerning Jesus. The leaders of the Jews did not accept the witness of John’s ministry. “But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.” (Lk. 7:30). They rejected Jesus as the Messiah, but those who received Him were given the authority to be born again. “He came unto His own and those who were His own did not receive Him. But, as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” (Jn. 1:11-12)

The conclusion is that “water” in John 3:5 really meant, to Nicodemus, that repentance was needed on his part to recognize the Messiah and his need of Messiah’s salvation. Nicodemus needed to accept John’s baptism, which meant he would accept Jesus as the Messiah and as the One who could take away his sins as the Lamb of God. If he would do so, that would make the way for him to be born of the Spirit of God. Repentance in salvation is just the other side of the coin of faith. It means to have a change of mind about Jesus and our need to trust in Him alone for salvation. It means turning from every other confidence (such as the Pharisee’s confidence in their keeping of the works of the Law) to trust (believe) solely in Jesus. The new spiritual birth still requires this repentance, but to believe in Jesus really includes this change of mind. In the context of salvation, repentance includes faith and faith includes repentance (Lk. 24:47; Acts 10:43; 11:17-18). The two go together not as two separate items, but as two aspects of one action.

It is at the moment of belief that we pass from death to life (Jn. 5:24; Rom. 3:26. 5:1-2). This means that we are transferred into a new realm (the Kingdom of God) by the new birth at the moment of belief. Jesus was calling Nicodemus to believe in Him as the Messiah, and Jesus stressed the matter of belief in the conversation with Nicodemus (see John 3:14-18). Therefore, the matter of “water”, being baptized by John, was simply an expression of belief. “Truly I say to you that the tax-gatherers and harlots will get into [lit., are getting into] the kingdom of God before you [the chief priests and elders who rejected the baptism of John]. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe him; and you, seeing this did no even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.” (Matt. 21:31b-32).

Believer’s baptism follows actual belief in Christ, so water baptism is simply an outward testimony of the inner faith and life we already possess (1 Pet. 3:21). It is normative for baptism to immediately follow belief, and they are viewed together in the New Testament in the conversion process (Acts 8:12; 16:14-15,31-34). Entry into the spiritual Kingdom of God is gained by belief in Christ, which is accompanied by regeneration (the new birth wrought by the Spirit of God), and our belief in Christ and our new life in Christ are testified in baptism.

Enter the Kingdom in Acts 14:22

The final verse using the term "enter the kingdom" is Acts 14:22:

"...strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’" (Acts 14:22).

"Through many tribulations" strongly implies faithful endurance through trials, without succumbing to the temptation to quit or turn back (see 1 Thess. 3:3). This thought is linked with the apostles’ exhortation to "continue in the faith" in the same verse. Faithful endurance under hardship is a great theme in the Bible and has much to do with the reward of the coming Kingdom.

The writer to the Hebrews exhorted the wavering Hebrews to "remember the former days, when, after being enlightened you endured a great conflict of suffering, partly, by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, . . . Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised" (Heb. 10:32,33,35-36). This passage in Hebrews connects faithful endurance through tribulations to the coming reward in the Kingdom.

Also, Jesus Himself said, "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Lk. 9:62). In summary, Acts 14:22 views entry into the coming Kingdom as being at the end of the long path of faithful endurance through tribulations.

These eight New Testament passages using the term "enter the kingdom" do not imply simple faith. No, rather we see that they entail the following elements: practicing righteousness (Matt 5:20), doing the will of God (Matt. 7:21), dealing with pride and ambition (Matt 18:3), letting go of riches (used for self indulgence) (Matt. 19:23,24), dealing with sin in the disciple’s life (Mk. 9:47), following Christ in baptism (Jn. 3:5), and enduring faithfully through tribulations (Acts 14:22).

Therefore, entrance into the coming Kingdom is a matter of works, not of grace (gift). There are some teachers who feel that overcoming (victorious) Christians will rule and reign with Christ in the Kingdom, while defeated Christians will simply lose their reign, but still be in the Kingdom realm with Christ. Apparently, these teachers do not see the full extent of the coming judgment upon believers. Subconsciously, they may still be affected by the grace concept in relation to the Kingdom, thinking God will be gracious to His children so as to at least allow them to be in the blessed Kingdom realm. I truly wish they were correct, but Scripture will not allow me to agree with them. God’s justice will be exercised at Christ’s Judgment Seat and every person will be recompensed for their deeds. Christ would not be just if He gave a positive reward (participation in the glory and blessing of His Kingdom) to a believer who lived a defeated life.

After reviewing all of these requirements of obedience and endurance for Kingdom entry, the reader may be overwhelmed by the demands presented. Once again we need to be reminded that what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matt. 19:26). All of these demands reveal our need to come to Him for His supply of grace and strength. Paul stated, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13) Our source of the Christian life must be Christ Himself. In union with Him, we can overcome every obstacle, whether internal or external.

To be vitally "in Christ", we need to daily draw near to Him with a true heart in the Word and in prayer; furthermore, we need to have "our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience" (Heb. 10:22) , by sincerely confessing all of our failures. Through such daily practices we will find that we can indeed be in union with Christ and learn from Him, growing in grace. The overcoming Christian life is not that complicated or difficult if we can learn to contact Him as our source. It is exceedingly difficult, however, when we attempt to carry it out with our own energy.

Another entry into the Kingdom

Before we leave the matter of entry to the Kingdom, we should note that there is another portion in the Gospels where Jesus speaks explicitly of entry without using the exact wording "enter the kingdom".

Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them, but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them (Mk. 10:13-16, NKJV, see also Matt. 19:13-15 and Lk. 18:15-17).

This is an intriguing passage. It does not seem coincidental that this story of Jesus’ encounter with the little children is recorded just before the story of the rich young ruler in all three of the synoptic Gospels. In both encounters (with the children and with the rich ruler), Jesus spoke of entering the Kingdom of God. However, the contrasts between the two incidents are many and instructive.

In one encounter the little children were brought to Jesus; in the other, a young man came seeking Him. In the first scene, very small children with no capability came to Him and He received them. In the second scene, a very capable, vigorous young man approaches Him. Jesus puts no demand upon the children and rebukes those who hinder them. He makes it so easy for them to come to Him and He receives them in His arms, blessing them.

In contrast to the rich young ruler, Jesus makes the encounter difficult, raising the stakes beyond the man’s capability. As respects the children, the Kingdom is simply received at a point in time. To the rich ruler, the Kingdom will cost all that he has and includes the demand to follow Christ for a life time. In the first scene, the Lord declares that the Kingdom of God is composed of such as these simple little children. In the second scene, the Lord indicates that the Kingdom is shared only by those who have left all and followed Him.

I believe the lesson is this: The Kingdom which the "children" receive (and thus enter) is the present Kingdom (the present stage of the Kingdom of God). Jesus pointed out that the quality of childlikeness is needed to receive the Kingdom. Everyone can be like a child: simple, trusting, unconfident, even timid. Any such person, whether an actual little child or not, can simply come to Jesus, receive the Kingdom (as a gift), and be taken in by Him, being blessed. This is the Kingdom according to grace. Reception of this Kingdom now also guarantees us a place in the eternal Kingdom of God (Jn. 6:37-40). The children were blessed by Jesus not because of their merit; He just wanted to bless them! (Also, Jesus wanted no one to hinder such as these children from receiving the Kingdom. I fear that today some "children", literal and figurative, may be being hindered by gospel preachers who place upon the "children" requirements designed for the young ruler.)

To the ruler, on the other hand, Jesus required the highest price to be paid for the blessing of inheriting eternal life (in the age to come). This is the coming stage of the Kingdom, manifested in the millennium, granted according to works. It is not a Kingdom received, but one "purchased" at a great price. This is the Kingdom bestowed as a reward.

In these consecutive accounts of the little children and the rich young ruler, God presents to us a beautiful picture of the successive stages of the Christian life. The first stage is portrayed by the young children. Here the new birth of the believer is pictured, where one simply comes to Jesus and receives the Kingdom by receiving Jesus (Jn. 1:12; Col. 1:13). Following that, there is the call to discipleship in the believer’s life. This call is pictured by the young ruler, showing a maturing one. This call to discipleship demands that the maturing one give up all to follow Christ in order to enter the future manifestation of the Kingdom. All believers are indeed children of God. But only some believers will meet the demands of total discipleship and thus be rewarded with eternal life in the millennial Kingdom.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)