Jesus says that no one will see the Kingdom of God or enter into it unless he is born again, born from above. This of course assumes that this is the great goal of mankind, to see or enter into the Kingdom of God. And this is a remarkable thing. Because the Kingdom of God is not synonymous with heaven. It’s natural to assume people want to live forever, especially if given the choice between hell and heaven. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Unless a man be born again he cannot enter into heaven,” or “he can’t live forever.” No, he says he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God, which certainly includes heaven, because God rules in heaven, but it’s far more than that. We can’t think of the Kingdom of God as a place or a future anticipation, something that’s going to be. The Kingdom of God is God’s reigning, it’s an active thing. It’s God ruling over you. And it happens on earth now as much as it does in heaven. This is what we learn in catechism. There is one Kingdom, one King, the Lord Jesus Christ, but we distinguish between two spheres of His rule. He rules here on earth in His Church, what we call His Kingdom of grace, and He rules in heaven over the saints and angels, what we call His Kingdom of glory.
So it is a wonder that Jesus simply states it as given, as obvious, that this is the great goal for mankind. To have God rule over us. Because it’s not the goal of sinners. We weren’t born wanting God to rule over us. What’s born of the flesh is flesh. And the flesh desires sinful things. It knows nothing of God. Nothing. It doesn’t know His name. His nature. His love. It doesn’t trust in Him. When it hears about Him it is just as offended as Nicodemus. Or it learns to hate God because He threatens punishment and death and wrath against sin. Who wants to be ruled by a God who threatens to throw you into hell? It’s impossible. Your flesh is not capable of that desire.
And so Jesus establishes these two things simultaneously. The goal of mankind, of everyone of us, is to have God rule over us. This is what God made us for. It’s what He intends us for. And yet this is precisely what our flesh hates above everything and cannot attain. And the necessity then comes to the fore. You must be born again. That flesh will not, cannot, have God rule over it. So it must die. And a new man be born again.
This means that all synergism is ruled out in conversion. Synergism means working together with God. It’s the false teaching that we can cooperate with God in our rebirth, in our conversion, as if there were something still good about our flesh. Hilariously, this is what Nicodemus proposes. He says, can an old man enter into his mother’s womb and be born again? He imagines, even in this ridiculous scenario, that the old man is going to have some part in his being born again, in becoming a new man. He’s going to crawl back into the womb. But no. It must be all God’s work. Just as the baby doesn’t help, but rather hinders, in being born from his mother, so we do not help God in becoming Christians. Our flesh could do nothing but resist.
So God must do it. And this is precisely what Jesus says. The word translated “again” in our Gospel, you must be born “again,” has actually two meanings. Its usual meaning and its literal meaning is “from above.” And that’s exactly how Jesus intends it. You must be born from above. God must do it. And then Jesus clarifies and says that it must be a birth of water and the Spirit. He’s speaking of Baptism, it’s God’s work, where the Holy Spirit makes children of the Father through the blood of His Son.
The Word of Baptism, the Word by which the Spirit works, is the name of God. Isn’t this amazing. The word that makes a new man, that gives the birth from above, that kills the sinful flesh, that makes the unwilling willing, the Word of Baptism is the name of God, nothing else. It is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it’s a name that your flesh did not know until God revealed it. As the Israelites had forgotten the name of the LORD when they were enslaved in Egypt, so that God now had to reveal it again in the burning bush to Moses, so all humanity in slavery to sin has forgotten the name of its God, its Creator, and with forgetting that name, has lost every right, every capability, to call on that God or expect any good from that God. But here God reverses it. He gives His name. He put it on you in your Baptism. He made Himself known to you. And in this action, this beautiful action, He creates in you a new heart, that is, new desires, new will, new thoughts, that make you actually want to be ruled by Him, want to see His Kingdom, to enter into it. What no reasoning could accomplish, because reason doesn’t know God’s name, what no exertion of your will could accomplish, because your will was opposed to God, God does by giving you His name.
Now this giving of His name is more than simply the giving of information, of course. It’s not like this name was a secret that Jesus finally tells and then all things are right. No, to know God’s name is to know Him as your God. He is the Father of your Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Father who created you, and who did not abandon you in your sin, but who so loved the world, loved you, in this particular way, that He gave His only Son for you, gave Him into your humanity, to wear your flesh and blood, to bring it into His eternal Person, to become your Brother, permanently, and take up your sin, and face its punishment and its death in your place on the cross. He is the eternal Son who now and forever remains one with you, who because of His great love for His Father and for you, was willing to give His life to reconcile you to your God. He is the Spirit who has taught your darkened heart and mind to know this God and to love Him and so to see His Kingdom.
So you are ruled by this God. This is what Baptism gives you. This is the new birth. To want the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to rule over you every day, every minute, in every aspect of your life, now and forever. Because you know Him. You know what He has done for you. You know what He has saved you from, how miserable a state it would be if your flesh, your sin, your base desires, your arrogant reason, were ruling over you and commanding your life. It’s bad enough that we have to live with our sinful flesh still. That it comes boiling up and we do what we don’t want to do and think what we ought not think and doubt where we should be certain, but to be ruled by it, to be in sin’s Kingdom, the devil’s Kingdom, what a horrid thought. Not to know our Creator or His love, not to want to do His will or love Him who has so loved us, what a horror. And this is what our God has saved us from by pouring out His name and love on us.
And so He rules over us by His Word. You are baptized in order to hear His Word and live by it. Because this is how He rules over you. That’s what Jesus says. So if you aren’t being ruled by His Word, you’re not in His Kingdom, not a Christian. This is literally what the Kingdom of God is. It’s God ruling over us by His Word. And that word will show you your sin. It will tell you what the world refuses to tell you. It won’t pamper you or spoil you or tell you how good you’ve been, it will tell you that you have not loved God above all things and you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. It will condemn your sinful flesh. And this is exactly what the baptized child of God wants to hear, this is the ruling you need, because there is nothing you want to be rid of more than this sin. So condemn it. Expose it, dear Lord. Rule over me by pointing out every lustful thought and every prideful word and every selfish slip of my tongue. And then forgive. Then speak the Word that rules my heart. That Jesus has spilt His blood for me. That He has faced His own wrath against my sin. That He has purchased my life by giving His own. That my sins are forgiven before God in heaven. That the eternal Father of the eternal Son is my Father who loves me. And make me confess this from the heart and in my life by the power of your Spirit.
And then Jesus rules all our life by His Word. He shows us how children of His Father behave. They don’t confess their sins and run to Him for forgiveness, only to forget Him the rest of the day or the rest of the week. They don’t just think of Him once in a while or whenever they get around to making it to church. No, He rules their lives. He is their King, their Lord. Let none by Christ our Master be, we sing. And so He tells us to pray and how to pray. To expect every good thing from Him. To ask for it in His name and His Father will give it. He shows us what is valuable in life, not money, not the praise of men, not the fading pleasures of the flesh, but His approval, a good conscience, when we live by His commandments, and all our failings are covered up by His forgiveness. He shows us how to suffer, how to give up on our own desires. He shows us the blessings of family, of marriage, of children. He inspires us to teach up our kids in our school, in our homes, in our church, for His Kingdom, to love His Word, to sing to Him and think of Him and obey Him and trust in Him. And so His rule extends to all our lives. It’s not incidental. It’s not compartmentalized into one aspect of our social life. It is our life.
And this means that it is the basis by which we judge everything. You live in Jesus’ Kingdom. He rules over you. Let His Word teach you. Let it rule your mind too and let it calm your emotions. High school graduates, that means making your life decisions not based simply on how much money you can make or what dazzling career you could have, but on what will keep you being ruled by Jesus – attending a good Lutheran church, finding a faithful Lutheran spouse, if God wills it, daily reading of God’s Word and praying to Him, keeping your virtue. Everything else will work out. Don’t let things stress you out. Compared to being a Christian, everything else is trivial. This is a lesson we all need to learn daily. And it’s a lesson that’s learned by contemplating every day the Holy Trinity, reading His Word, singing and praying to Him. This is how He rules over us.
It’s by this we can face life and death and everything in between. This is what Jesus says. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life. Just as the Kingdom of God is not simply in the future, but is now, so eternal life is lived now and forever. Luther captures this so beautifully in the simple words of the catechism. How does God’s Kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit (in our Baptism), so that by His grace, we believe His holy word (here at church, daily at home) and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity. To live a godly life is to live life before the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May the Father grant this to us for Christ’s sake by the power of His Spirit, now and forever. Amen.