The wind is swirling about the two men. A sense of calming energy coruscates all around them, alive with promise, the trees rustling, the cool of the rooftop both intimately personal and yet open to the lambent mysteries of the cosmos.
As the moon’s silver light pools around their seated forms, Nicodemus finds his heartbeat quickening, his breath catching, for he is on the cusp of understanding. His spiritual hunger is keening for the rabbi’s wisdom—his rabbi, Nicodemus suddenly realizes.
The elder ruler’s skin is weathered, his hair nearly gone white. To others, it is usually Nicodemus who imparts knowledge and insight of the scriptures. But here, before this young man who seems yet to carry eternity within him, the aged Pharisee feels like a talmidim, fresh in his youth.
What was this strange wind stirring like a hurricane within him?
Note how Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ question.
Jesus recognized Nicodemus’ longing to perceive, so he gave Nicodemus four different ways to think about this radical new concept. Here are the first two.
“Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless one is born out of water and Spirit, one is not able to enter into the kingdom of God.”Jesus, in John 3:5
Rabbis of Jesus’ day were actually familiar with this idea, but to them it was largely external. It meant making vows and going through a purification ritual in order to enter into a new association, like the Pharisees, or even to become a Jew. Jesus added a profound new dimension.
We, ourselves, often talk about a Christian being someone who has given their life to God.
But first, we really need to describe a Christian as someone who gets their life from God.
The same way people enter into the physical world, by being born physically, people enter into the spiritual kingdom of God by being born spiritually.
“The one being born out of the flesh, is flesh, and the one being born out of the Spirit is spirit.”Jesus, in John 3:6
One cannot adapt to the new kingdom. You and I have to be—in a literal sense—born anew, only this time, begotten of heaven, and therefore born as heavenly stuff. Spirit.
“Rebirth” in theological terms is referred to as regeneration. Regeneration takes what was once dead spiritually and causes it to be born again in newness of life. Rebirth is that act by which the Holy Spirit puts eternal life into a person who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit recreates the human heart, putting into your heart, and mine, an inclination towards God and a desire for the things of God. Just as the child inherits the natures of their parents, so does the child of God. The born-again person has God’s nature within them.
(Now, this part is me telling you what I think—there is quite a bit of conversation in theology land about what exactly Jesus meant by water and by Spirit. Since you can see I am capitalizing the word “Spirit” in those instances, I am already revealing what I think.)
Just as there are two parents for physical birth, there are two “parents” for spiritual birth:
- Water, which in the Bible often symbolizes the Word of God, refreshes and purifies with revelation and truth.
- The Spirit of God, Who does the divine work of regeneration, recreation, or new creation.
When put together, believing God’s words and being enlivened by the Holy Spirit, new life begins.
This news rocked Nicodemus to the core.
He was both culturally and religiously Jewish, born of Abraham, child of the covenant, circumcised and keeper of the law. But inwardly he had been spiritually dead, as the Bible describes everyone to be.
Jesus must have seen the shock on Nicodemus’ face because he basically said, “Don’t look at me like that!”
“Do not marvel because I said to you ‘You must be born from above, begotten in heaven, created anew, and brought forth from heaven.’”Jesus, in John 3:7
To help him understand the sense of what he was teaching, Jesus gave Nicodemus a second illustration.
“The wind/Spirit blows wherever [the wind/Spirit] wills and you hear [the wind/Spirit’s] sound but you do not know where [the wind/Spirit] is coming from and where [the wind/Spirit] is going to . . .”Jesus, in John 3:8a
The word “wind” in both Hebrew and Greek is the same word for “spirit.” As Nicodemus became aware of the wind tugging on his cloak and cooling his skin, and watched the leaves fluttering in the swaying trees, Jesus explained that like the wind the Holy Spirit is invisible but powerful, and you can’t predict, explain, or control the movements of the wind, or of the Spirit.
“. . . In this way are all those who are born out of the Spirit.”Jesus, in John 3:8b
Regeneration is partly a mystery, it is all internal, you and I cannot fully explain it, and there are no physical steps we can take to make it happen. God does it, but we can see the evidence of it.
Nicodemus could hardly take it all in. “How are these things able to be?”
But Jesus would not let Nicodemus off the hook. If Nicodemus was the teacher of Israel, then he had all he needed in the scriptures themselves to know what Jesus was talking about. He should know that
- Ecclesiastes referred to eternity in the hearts of those who follow God.
- Isaiah spoke of new life from God.
- Jeremiah had prophesied of a new covenant written on their hearts.
- Ezekiel had said God would take out the old heart of stone and replace it with a new heart and God’s own Spirit.
The teachings of the Pharisees, Nicodemus’ sect, possibly the most respected version of their faith in all Judea, had unwittingly prevented Nicodemus from understanding what the prophets had been pointing to. He had been reading the scriptures through the lens of a preconceived theology. Now, Jesus was challenging that theology.
To enter the kingdom of God, you must be born anew
Having good behavior does not make you or me a good person.
It is not that good behavior has no value. It has great value. It is just that good behavior can still be “born of the flesh.” In other words, good behavior can just as much come from someone who is not motivated by good as someone who is motivated by good.
So, Jesus was saying, one must be born from above, made of heavenly stuff, in order to have God’s goodness within, in new life.
(Next week: the other two ways Jesus gave Nicodemus to help him think about this radical new concept.)
[The Spirit is like the wind | Euan Morrison flickr, CC BY 2.0]