“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
As a teacher of Israel, there are things Jesus was saying to Nicodemus that he was supposed to recognize. Jesus would be teaching “heavenly” things in a moment – for He was the only one who had descended from heaven and could represent the Trinitarian witness – but up to this point, evidently, He was teaching earthly things Nicodemus should have recognized.
So what were the teachings Nicodemus was supposed to recognize? As a “teacher of Israel,” of course, Jesus was referring to the Torah and its teachings. What does the Torah say that resonates with what Jesus had just taught Nicodemus. Well, let’s review those teachings and see which ones match up with Torah teachings:
(1) Only those born from above will see the kingdom of God
(2) Born from above means born of water and the spirit
(3) Those born of the Spirit hear a sound they don’t know where it comes from, which is the cause of their being born from above
As to the first point, we see right in the beginning how Adam was “born from above” as God mixed the mist with dust and added “from above” His Spirit, and the first thing Adam saw was God’s realm, His kingdom, which He shared with Adam (and Eve).
The second point, being born of water and the spirit, finds parallels from the beginning as well. The Holy Spirit hovered over the waters before bringing forth the creation. Everything in the creation is “born” from the water and the spirit. And again after the flood, God sent “a wind” (which is the same word as “breath” or “spirit”) over the waters, to bring about the renewed creation.
The third point is a bit trickier. What are the sounds associated with the Spirit of life? The Spirit hovered over the waters, and then the first sound uttered, “Let there be light,” which came from seemingly nowhere, causes light to be “born from above, from God.” The first sound Adam heard was “Be fruitful and multiply,” which has strong allusions to Jesus’ teachings about birth. Adam, filled with the Spirit, names the animals. Here again goes forth a sound from one made in God’s image, from above.
In any event, all these details Nicodemus should have recognized. To be born from above involves the water, spirit, and sounds. And this seems to be the pattern of the creation account. Drawn out of the waters, the spirit giving life to something, and that newly created thing being given a name.
When the Lord said, after the fall, “My spirit will no longer abide with man,” this was a problem. The main “ingredient” to man as a “living being” was removed, causing man to return to the dust, as the water evaporated out of him. The Spirit as the actor, the giver of life. Without Him, the other materials remain inert.
That passage can also be translated, “My spirit will no longer strive with man.” What is it about the sustaining necessity of the Spirit’s life-giving work that is so closely associated with the Spirit striving with man?
I think it goes back to the idea that the Spirit is a sword. The natural entropy of man is to return to the dust. Satan’s motto – “Do what thou wilt” – is really an anthem toward entropy, to follow our inner compulsions toward nothingness. The work of the Holy Spirit is often revealed as a burden, a wrestling with God, a taking up of the cross. Even the reference to those skilled in fine arts – who crafted the tabernacle – as “full of the spirit” suggests the burdens inherent in learning any craft.
It also speaks to the truth that being born of God involves labor pains. We contemplated this truth yesterday. Jesus talks about giving birth at the cross; St. Paul talks about the creation groans in labor pains until the sons of God are revealed; he also talks about the labor of forming Christ in his hearers.
It’s a jolt to the system to be born from above and grow into conformity with our adopted status. From the moment the baby screams out at the cold waters of baptism, to the sacrifices one makes to get to church and catechism class, to the alienation Christians feel for what they believe, to the difficult teachings we struggle with our whole lives, to the sins we have to put to death time and time again, being “born from above” is a burden.
And these burdens all center on the word. The word is a burden to the prophets. The pastor’s stole is a symbol of the burden. The yoke of this burden has been lightened by Christ, who fulfills it for us, but it’s still a yoke, and a burden. It is “work” to draw out of the waters the creatures. It is “work” to give birth. Only the seventh day is a rest from this.
In the meantime, what is it in us that keeps us going? What is it that says “Get up and go to church”? What is it that says compels us to pursue the difficult, righteous path – to love our enemies, to respond to cursing with blessing, to pray for bad governments, to bring peace between neighbors, etc. – when every cell in our body says “Do what thou wilt?” Is it not the Spirit? And where does that come from? Who knows, but we hear the sound of it. It’s the sound of the Holy Spirit activating Jesus’ words, bringing them to remembrance, compelling the new life in the new creation.
Nicodemus at least should have gotten those basics down, how the Holy Spirit has been doing this work from the beginning, working through water and the word. Ironically, the one thing Nicodemus did get right, the “heavenly witness” Jesus is about to teach, was something he perhaps inadvertently said when he called Jesus “teacher come from God.” Jesus had good things to work with.