One of the best known conversations in the Bible is between Jesus and a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, who came to him secretly, “by night.”  Emerging out of this interaction between two men dedicated to bringing others into a relationship with God are these kernels of truth that have become synonymous with the Gospel:

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (John 3:3)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

Many modern versions translate “born again” as “born from above,” which offends some traditional folk who are attached to the King James Version’s wording.  Actually, the basic meaning of the Greek word is “from above,” but there are also some New Testament passages where “again” seems to be the right meaning.  I like the suggestion that Jesus was being “purposely ambiguous” here, because he wanted Nicodemus to get both meanings.  In his follow-up response, Nicodemus applies the “again” meaning literally:

“Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  (verse 4)

Jesus answers the facetious question by distinguishing between the flesh and spirit parts of a human person; the flesh part is from the earth, but the spirit part is “from above” (verses 5 to 7).  In order for the spirit part to come to life, a person must experience something just as radical as a second birth.

There’s a subtle play on words throughout this passage.  The word pneuma (from which we get English words such as pneumatic and pneumonia) at first seems to refer to the spirit part of a person, but Jesus uses it with a  heavier meaning, with reference to the Spirit of God who brings the human spirit to life:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  (verse 6)

Then Jesus stretches pneuma even farther.  English readers may miss the fact that in his next sentence, pneuma is the Greek word behind “wind”:

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (verse 8)

You can’t really see the wind, but you can see the leaves move and the branches bend, and sometimes you can hear the wind howl or feel it on your skin.

The Holy Spirit of God is present in every believer’s life and in every Christian worship experience.  Some people look for certain manifestations that they see as evidence of the Spirit’s presence, “gifts” like speaking in other tongues, or healings, or prophecies.  Others emphasize moral changes in people’s lives as proof that the Spirit is working.  Acts of mercy, loving gifts to those who are poor, ill or prejudiced-against may also be seen as demonstrations of the Spirit’s activity.  All of these may be the moving leaves and bending brances that show the second birth is a reality.

One thing is clear from Jesus’ teaching: we can’t tell the Spirit how to operate.  It’s the pneuma (Spirit) who, like the pneuma (wind), moves in the way he “chooses” to enliven the pneuma (spirit) of an individual believer.  We should be prepared for some surprises.

— Pastor George Van Alstine