Nicodemus said to [Jesus], “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? —John 3:4
A few years ago, I got on a kick to reinvent myself a bit physically. At the time, I had a beard, glasses, and an extra thirty pounds. I decided it was time for a change. Losing the beard was easy, though it took several weeks to get back into the habit of shaving every morning. Taking off the glasses for good was a bit harder, but to my surprise, my ophthalmologist told me I was a good candidate for LASIK eye surgery, and I scheduled my appointment. Finally, there was the weight to be lost. I started by cutting out as much sugar from my diet as possible. I switched to stevia in my coffee, passed on desserts and snacks, and become a connoisseur of low-fat cheese and crackers. Then, I committed to running at least three days a week. At first, it was more of a run/walk with lots of water breaks, but after a dozen or so sessions on the treadmill, I was able to jog for five miles or longer at a time.
In just a few months, I felt healthier, looked younger, and had much more energy. In fact, my appearance was so different that one coworker, who normally worked remotely and hadn’t seen me in a few months, didn’t recognize me. He passed right by me in the hallway, offering only a polite nod of his head as he would to any stranger. When I spoke with him later, he did a double take and admitted I looked completely different.
The Bible says that when we come to know Jesus, we become completely different too, only our transformation in Christ doesn’t affect our outward appearance just yet. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” In other words, because Jesus’s resurrection sparked the dawn of the new creation, those of us who are connected to him are also part of that new creation.
The Once and Future Kingdom
While the resurrection and transformation of our physical bodies is still a future event, the Holy Spirit living inside of us brings our dead spirits back to life. We become new. That’s why in one place Paul could write, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (romans 6:8; cf. 2 timothy 2:11), referring to a future resurrection. But in another, he could say, “In him also you were . . . buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (colossians 2:11–12), emphasizing that believers have already been “raised,” a past event.
Jesus made this clear as well when, in John 3, he told a religious leader named Nicodemus that he needed to be born again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (john 3:3). Many people miss the significance of this because they equate the kingdom of God, also called the kingdom of heaven, with the afterlife. But the kingdom is not just another way of referring to heaven. The kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God, which, of course, is the way of things in heaven. But one day, everything in creation will come under God’s rule, just as it was in the beginning. God’s kingdom will cover the whole universe.
As it stands now, our world is in rebellion. That’s why it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about the kingdom in a future sense, as Jesus often did. But that’s not the whole story. When someone comes to know Jesus, they enter into God’s kingdom, right here and right now. And as individuals and families, whole communities and nations, bow to Jesus, his kingdom takes new ground. In fact, Jesus instructed his followers to pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth (matthew 6:10; luke 11:2). That’s the future aspect of the kingdom. But he also referred to the kingdom as having “come near” (luke 10:9, 11), having “come upon you” (matthew 12:28; luke 11:20), and being “in the midst of you” (luke 17:21). That’s the present aspect at work.
Nicodemus seemed to understand that Jesus was requiring a present change in order to enter into God’s kingdom here and now. His objection, while somewhat flippant, gets at the immediacy of Jesus’s call to be born again: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (john 3:4). As a highly educated religious leader, Nicodemus understood the new birth to be figurative language on Jesus’s part. But his response, cloaked in literal language, demonstrates that he recognized the impossibility of Jesus’s statement. If he had taken Jesus’s demand of a new birth as merely a requirement to enter the pearly gates of heaven upon his death, he wouldn’t have flinched. He knew Jesus was telling him that God required a total change of life, right then and there, in order to be a part of the new thing God was doing. What Jesus was asking for was as impossible as a grown man making his way back into his mother’s womb to be born again. But of course, “with God all things are possible” (matthew 19:26).
Just as no part of the old creation willed itself into being, so with the new creation God brings to each of Christ’s followers, the miracle belongs to him alone. None of us can take the slightest credit for what God has done. The apostle Paul goes so far as to say that the change in a believer is nothing short of the difference between death and life:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (ephesians 2:4–7).
Notice that Paul’s description of the believer’s experience is, once again, in the past tense. God has already “made us alive together with Christ” and already “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (vv. 5–6). While we await a future bodily resurrection and the coming of new heavens and a new earth, we have already been awakened to the age to come. Our status as new creations in Christ Jesus is already firm and secure.
God performs a miracle within every believer to make each one a new creation. This comes by nothing we have done—“by grace you have been saved” (v. 5). And the reason for this new birth? It is “so that in the coming ages [God] might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (v. 7). Just like the creation of the heavens and the earth at the beginning of everything way back in Genesis, this work of new creation in our hearts is from God and by God. Through and through, it is an overflow of his love.
New Vision for Kingdom Citizens
Shortly after my eye surgery a couple of years ago, I discovered that my mind did not immediately accept the new reality of 20/20 vision. Every morning for the first several days, I would wake up seeing clearly, but I would inevitably reach for my glasses next to the bed out of habit. And while driving, I would often find myself squinting unnecessarily to see things in the distance. The squinting didn’t improve my eyesight one iota, but it somehow felt right to narrow my gaze in those situations, just as I had done before. I had new vision, but it took my brain a little time to accept the truth.
This is one of the ongoing challenges of the Christian life: learning to live in the truth of our new birth. We have been given a new nature, but we must choose to walk in it. While our status as new creations is a gift from God, we must exercise the gift every day. That’s why the apostle Paul encouraged the Christians at Ephesus “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life” (ephesians 4:22), and also “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 24). God has given us a new spirit, which is now able to obey Him (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26), and he has sent the Holy Spirit to live inside of us, but it is up to us to obey his promptings.
While the Christian life is an ongoing battle against sin to walk in newness of life, too often we give up before we even start. We are quick to say with the apostle Paul, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . .” That’s Romans 3:23—a popular verse and one many of us can recite from memory. But how many of us can recall the next verse? Paul continues his thought: “. . . and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). We have been set free. We have been bought out of slavery. We have been made new. The new creation has broken into our lives, right here and right now. We are no longer at home in this world; we belong to another. And the sinful nature that we inherited from Adam, while it still attempts to pull us down every day, is just as alien within us.
The good news of the gospel extends to all of creation, but it starts with us. We really do have a role to play. We have been made new, and one day, when we find ourselves living forever with our Maker in a restored and renewed earth that has been joined to a new heaven, the sin we struggled with in this life will be seen for what it is: death, the very opposite of the goodness that was in our Father’s heart at the very beginning—and has been his desire for us ever since.