Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Spirit of the Lord: John 3.1-10

Nicodemus is famous for coming to see Jesus at night, but there are far more interesting things in this passage than that.  Nicodemus was very respectful to Jesus, called him Rabbi, and acknowledged that only someone sent from God could do what Jesus had done.  Jesus skipped the pleasantries and announced that "I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  Nicodemus was horrified; his imagined a man being born by his mother again, something impossible.  "How can a man be born when he is old?"  Jesus expanded the concept by saying that a man must be "born of water and Spirit" to "enter the kingdom of God."

Today people tend to pick one of the two: water or Spirit.  Jesus said that we have to have both to enter the kingdom.  I know there is a debate about whether "water" refers to baptism or something else, but since the discussion is about being born again I think it is safe to say they are talking about baptism.  Our rebirth has to have the outward obedience of water baptism and the inward rebirth of our spirit, or we will not enter the kingdom of God.

How does all this work?  Jesus told Nicodemus to listen to the wind.  You can't see it or hold it, but you can see it's actions.  You don't have to understand the wind to believe it is real.  We don't have to understand being born of the Spirit to believe it is real either; we see the results in our own lives.  

Nicodemus responded with "How can this be?"  Jesus' answer is interesting: "You are Israel's teacher, and you do not understand these things?"   Was it fair for Jesus to say that?  Nicodemus was a religious leader in Israel, but how could he have understood all these concepts?  We are Christians, so it is easy for us to understand the idea of being born of the Spirit.  How could Jesus have expected Nicodemus, a Jew, to understand all of this? 

Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand what he was teaching because the Holy Spirit is found throughout the Old Testament.  "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters," Gen. 1.2.   Two verses  into the bible and we already have a mention of the Holy Spirit.  There are many, many more: How did Samson kill a lion with his bare hands?  "The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power..." Judges 14.6.  How did he kill 1,000 men with a donkey's jawbone?  "The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power..." Judges 15.14.

After the prophet Nathan confronted David with his adultery with Bathsheba David wrote  Psalm 51 where he said "do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me" (Psa. 51.11).  There are more passages we could read, but let's look at one more: Joel 2.28 (quoted by Peter in Acts 2.17) "And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions."  Nicodemus should have understood when Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit.

What about baptism?  How could a Jew have understood the need to be baptized?  Jews did and do baptize people.  When the Pharisees questioned John the Baptist, in John 1.24-27, they didn't ask him what he was doing that wanted to know why he was baptizing.  Mark wrote that John the Baptist preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1.40). John the Baptist said God told him "the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1.34). Nicodemus should have understood about the need to be baptized. 

Jesus may have had a certain passage in mind when he was speaking to Nicodemus, perhaps Ezekiel 37.1-14: The Valley of Dry Bones.  Ezekiel was shown a valley full of old dried out bones which represented the nation of Israel (Eze. 37.11).  God asked Ezekiel "Son of man, can these bones live?"  Ezekiel replied "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know."  He is told to prophesy to the bones "... Prophesy to the breath: prophesy, son of man, and say to it, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds,' breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live," (Eze.37.9).  The Hebrew word for wind and breath is the same one translated "spirit."  Jesus expected Nicodemus to know this prophesy.

People often say they wish they could start their lives over again.  Jesus told Nicodemus that they can, and John writes to us that  " all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1.12-13)



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