We are asking questions of John 3. Here is one: Why does Jesus abruptly change the subject and talk to Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again and about the kingdom of God?
So here’s the picture: Nicodemus is being all suave and sophisticated. It’s not an act; it’s just who the man has become over the years. “You know, some of us (down at the club or in the department) are pretty impressed with you, young man. We know you’re special – know that God sent you.” He probably would have gone on for a while, talking like that, trying to get to his real point, but Jesus cut him off faster than a Mercedes on an LA highway: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).
So why does Jesus change the subject and talk about the kingdom of God? I think people rarely ask this question, but they feel it; and then they assume an answer that is all wrong.
They feel the question, and if they had to frame the answer it would be something like this: Jesus interrupted Nicodemus and changed the subject because he had important information to share with him (and us) about how to get into heaven. Jesus wanted to cut to the chase and tell Nicodemus how to get into heaven. But read it again. Is there anything about getting into heaven in this passage? Is Jesus really talking about pulling up stakes and moving to the skies?
I don’t think so. We jump to that conclusion because we assume that entering the kingdom of God is synonymous with getting into heaven. But that is the wrong conclusion to draw. Elsewhere Jesus talks about the kingdom of God (it is his single favorite subject to talk about) and it is abundantly clear that he is not using the term as a synonym for heaven. He says in one place, “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). Was he saying that the eternal dwelling place of the blessed had descended up those people? Not at all—not yet.
In other places Jesus talked about the kingdom of God being taken from people. He wasn’t talking about heaven. He told his disciples that some of them would see the kingdom of God come with power in their lifetimes. He wasn’t talking about heaven then, either. I don’t know if there is any place in the New Testament where the words “kingdom of God” are synonymous for heaven, including here.
Jesus is not telling Nick how to get to heaven when he dies, but how to enter God’s kingdom while he lives. Jesus is not giving Nick directions to a destination. He’s telling him what needs to happen for a human to participate in God’s rule and live under his care – that is, to enter God’s kingdom.
Does that make heaven as a destination unimportant? Of course not. Just because Jesus wasn’t talking about our destination on this occasion doesn’t mean he never talked about it (he did), or that our destination isn’t important, (it is). But we cannot hijack a passage to make it serve our own theological interests. If we do, we’ll make Jesus say something that he wasn’t really saying, and we’ll miss something that he wanted people to know.
Jesus was always announcing this good news: God’s kingdom – his rule and protection – is available to people now. It is delightfully possible to enter God’s kingdom today, and live in it with rich confidence and joy. But to do so, we must be born again.