Following the celebration of Pentecost last Sunday, for six weeks my blogs will feature reflections on John’s account of the gift of the Spirit
The phrase ‘born of the Spirit’ comes from the occasion when Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, came to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus was puzzled by Jesus insistence that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. Nicodemus was puzzled. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? (v4). Jesus goes on to make clear to Nicodemus that he had been using spiritual terms: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3.6). “Flesh” speaks of the weakness of humankind, which can only operate in its own limited strength; whereas “the Spirit” denotes the power of God at work in the world. Maybe there is a reference back to the Prologue: “But to all who received him…he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of the blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1,12,13). To the astonished Nicodemus Jesus again declares: “You must be born from above” (3.7). However, whereas earlier Jesus had just addressed Nicodemus and spoke in the singular (3.3), here Jesus uses the plural and makes a more general statement to the effect that ‘You all’ need to be born from above.
Scholars have long puzzled as to what precisely Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the need to be born of “water and the Spirit” (3.5). Some have seen “water” and “the Spirit” as being more or less synonymous (a figure of speech known as a hendiadys) whereby the water and Spirit denote the one thing: certainly elsewhere in this Gospel water functions as a metaphor for the Spirit (4.10, 13-15; 7.38) as it also does in the Old Testament (e.g. Ezek 36.25-27). In favour of this interpretation is that both “water” and “Spirit” lack the article, and that they are both governed by the one preposition (ex).
However, most scholars see Jesus making a contrast between “water” and “Spirit”. If this is so, then within the original context the contrast must be between the baptism of John the Baptist and the baptism of the Spirit. In favour of this is that all previous references to ‘water’ in this Gospel relate to John’s baptizing ministry (1.26, 31,33); and, even more importantly, that John’s baptizing ministry with water is compared to Jesus’ baptizing ministry with the Spirit (1.33). For Nicodemus, who would have known of John the Baptist, this would have been quite a challenge. It would have necessitated him, a leading Pharisee, undergoing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. However, undoubtedly, the readers of this Gospel would have seen a reference to Christian baptism, in which water baptism and the reception of the Spirit were intimately linked (see Acts 2.38).
Sadly Nicodemus has not been the only person puzzled by Jesus’ emphasis on the need to be born of the Spirit. Indeed, the term ‘born again’ Christianity has had a pretty bad press, not least because at one stage almost every American politician standing for office claimed to be born again. However, in spite of the cheapening of the term by our American cousins, the fact is that born-again Christianity is no strange phenomenon peculiar to the second half of the 20th century, but is of the very essence of the Christian faith. The Oxbridge don, C. S. Lewis, put it this way: “We’re like eggs at present. And you can’t go on indefinitely being just an ordinary egg. We must be hatched or go bad”. Or to put it in the language of John 3, there are only two categories of people: the once-born or the twice-born – the living or the dying. Ultimately we cannot sit on the fence – we either get hatched or we go bad, we either die or we are born to eternal life.
This concept of being ‘born again’ is difficult for non-Christians to understand. It’s like describing the sound of a symphony orchestra to a deaf person, or describing a sunset to a blind person. Where do you begin? Obviously Jesus was using picture language. When we are ‘born again’ we are still the same person – and yet we are not. Interestingly some years ago Volkswagen developed this idea in one of their advertisements for its Golf range of cars. They talked of the ‘Born Again Golf’. It looked the same from the outside, but inside everything was different – improved – not a patch on the former model. Such is this new life – a life beyond description, but not beyond experience.
The new birth comes about as a result of our action, and also of God’s action. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said to Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (3.5). “Water” here is a reference to baptism. In baptism we make our response to God. Nicodemus would have known of the baptism of John the Baptist. There in the water of the river Jordan people symbolised their resolve to turn from their sinful ways as also their desire to experience God’s forgiveness in their lives. In Christian baptism similarly we turn to God in repentance and faith, with a view to experiencing the new life of God’s Spirit in our lives. In other words, to be born of water is more than simply to be dunked in water. It involves our response to God.
It is surely significant that immediately after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus John placed these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3.16). God who wants us to enter his kingdom, he wants us to experience eternal life. But for that to happen action is needed on our part: we must respond in faith. Such faith is expressed in the water of baptism. This is what Jesus had in mind when he said, to enter the Kingdom of God we must be “born of water” (3.5).
But the new birth is more than a human happening. We need to be born of the “Spirit” (3.5). Indeed, this is suggested by the double-nuance present in the phrase “born again” or “born from above“. The new birth arises from God’s Spirit at work in our lives. The New Testament teaches that when we commit ourselves to God, God commits himself to us – and he does so through the gift of his Spirit. When we respond by faith to God’s grace in the water of baptism, God by his Spirit enables us to experience the new life of the kingdom. To be born “from above” is in fact to be “born again” into eternal life.
“No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (3.5). It doesn’t matter who we are, whether we are meticulous in our religious practices like Nicodemus, or flagrantly immoral like the woman of Samaria, all of us need to be born again, we all need to be born from above. God, it has been said, has no grandchildren. Each of us has to go through the process of new birth for ourselves.