“The wind blows where it chooses” (3.8) – what a wonderful metaphor for the Spirit! However, Nicodemus was puzzled by the concept.
To help Nicodemus understand what he had in mind, Jesus introduced an analogy between the Spirit and the wind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you (singular!) hear the sound of it, but you (singular) do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3.8). This statement involves a play on words. The Greek word ‘pneuma’ (as also the Hebrew word ‘ruah’) can mean ‘wind’, ‘breath’, or ‘spirit’. This means that it becomes easy to draw a comparison between the effects of the wind and the effects of the Spirit. There is also a possible word-play present in the use of the Greek word ‘phone’, which can mean both ‘sound’ and ‘voice’. Just as people cannot see from where the wind comes or where it is going, but they can hear its sound, so too people may not be able to see the Spirit, but nonetheless can hear his ‘voice’. Or to make the statement a little more general: just as people may not be able to see the wind itself, but nonetheless can see its effects on for instance the sail of a boat or the branches of a tree, so people may not be able to see the Spirit, but nonetheless can see the effects of the Spirit upon the life of individuals or indeed the life of a church.
Nicodemus, who cannot move beyond his one-dimensional earth-bound box, remained deeply mystified: “How can these things be?” (3.9). In reply Jesus rebuked Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3.10) The implication is that a knowledge of the Old Testament should have helped Nicodemus understand the work of the Spirit. Did Jesus perhaps have in mind such passages as Isaiah 32.15; Ezek 36.25-26; Joel 2.28-28? We do not know.
One thing for certain: the metaphor speaks of the ceaseless action of the Spirit. God’s Spirit was at work at the beginning of creation, as the “wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1.2). God’s Spirit will continue his work until the end of time, inviting the thirsty to come and take the water of life (Rev 22.16). Yes, at particular times in history, such as Pentecost, the wind of the Spirit blows like a mighty hurricane with great power; but more often than not the wind of the Spirit is more like a gentle breeze. But at all times, the Spirit is at work – “the wind blows”. Yes, God through his Spirit brings about amazing times of renewal, but we need to be mindful that he is also at work in the small things too. Some Christians seem to be fixated on the hope of future revival, and fail to see God through his Spirit gently working in the present.
The metaphor also speaks of the sovereign freedom of the Spirit. Just as we cannot control the strength of the wind or dictate its direction, neither can we organise God’s Spirit. To the question, “Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand?” (Prov 30.4), the answer is no one. “The wind blows where it chooses”. The wind cannot be tamed. God acts through his Spirit as he deems fit, and in so doing inevitably surprises us. But, as God reminds us through the prophet, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55.8). We must take care, lest for instance, we presume that Spirit only works with Christians with whom we feel comfortable: sometimes to our surprise we discover the Spirit at work among Christians who are very different from us. Nor may we presume that we can programme the Spirit to work by adopting the latest evangelistic tool: the fact is that the wind of the Spirit “blows where it chooses”, upsetting all our plans. The most we can do is to set the sails of our church in the hope that we might be able to catch the wind of the Spirit.
The metaphor also speaks of the indisputable evidence of the Spirit. We may be unable to put God’s Spirit under a microscope, but his effect in people’s lives can be as clearly seen, as the wind can be seen blowing through the trees. Jesus spoke of people hearing the “sound” of the Spirit (3.8). Churches where the Spirit is at work are churches where people affirm one another, rather than criticise one another; where people encourage one another and build one another up. But the Spirit, of the course, does not work just through words, but through lives which bear the mark of the Spirit, which produce the fruit of the Spirit.