Jesus' discussion with the Pharisee Nicodemus in John chapter 3 is a landmark passage in the New Testament, and one of the most familiar stories in the entire Bible. John 3:16 may be the most quoted scripture of all, with only Genesis 1:1 or parts of Psalm 23 giving it any real competition. As familiar as the story is, however, I've seen comparatively little attention given to what Jesus had to say in verses 5-8, after he declared "you must be born again":
"Nicodemus said to Him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?' Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”The statement Jesus makes here about the wind seems rather strange. What does that have to do with being 'born again'? The answer is given to us in two other portions of the same chapter, illustrating two pillars of biblical interpretation: 1) Understanding the full, immediate context of a scripture is essential, and 2) Always look for similar language used elsewhere in scripture, especially when employed by the same author, to get a complete picture of what is being said. Look first at verses 9-13 of John 3:
"Nicodemus said to Him, 'How can these things be?' Jesus answered and said to him, 'Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man."Now skip down to the second half of the chapter (obviously, you'll want to read the whole chapter, but my focus here is on understanding the comments in verses 5-8). In the second half of the chapter, the apostle John tells us about an incident that took place involving John the Baptist and his disciples. John is confronted about the growing ministry of Jesus, likely because his disciples were concerned about him being overshadowed by Jesus. John answers them that this overshadowing is exactly what they should expect and what needs to happen: "He must increase but I must decrease."
I want to direct your attention to the verses that follow this discussion: that is, verses 31-36. At times, it's difficult to know where direct quotations end in scripture and this is an example of such an instance. At first, it may seem as if verses 31-36 continue John the Baptist's response to his disciples, but I believe they are actually commentary by the apostle John. Either way, they help explain what Jesus meant in verses 5-8:
“He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” - John 3:31-36Here are the key phrases from both passages I've quoted:
"The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
"If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man."
“He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony."As with many of the teachings of Jesus, there are multiple layers to consider here. The words spirit and wind mean totally different things to us, but both are translated from the same Greek word: pnuema, which makes the comparison between "spirit" and "wind" all the more compelling in this discourse. In a way, you could say that one is a wind that proceeds from the Earth while the other is a 'wind' that proceeds from God out of heaven. Further, the words again (as in "born again") and above (as in "from above") are also the same Greek word: anothen. Used elsewhere, they would have entirely different applications (which would be determined by grammar and context), but here I believe the usage is comparative for the sake of illustration: to be "born again" is to be born "from above," for the Spirit, which makes the new birth possible, comes from above.
Bearing these things in mind, and connecting the phrases I quoted, here is one possible (admittedly loose) paraphrase of what Jesus meant by what he said to Nicodemus. I hope this will be of help to any of you who may have wondered about this:
"You hear the wind blow, but you cannot tell where it came from or where it's going because you cannot see it; it is hidden from you, and you cannot understand those who are born of the Spirit for the same reason. You are of the Earth; you think and speak of earthly things and in earthly ways because that is where you are from and what you know. But when I speak of the Spirit, I am not speaking of earthly things and earthly ways; I am speaking of heavenly things and heavenly ways, things which are as hidden from you as the wind you cannot see. Yet, I *have* spoken to you of earthly things, which you should have understood because you are of the Earth, and you did not believe me. Since you did not believe what I told you about your own realm, how will you believe what I tell you about heavenly things? You have never been there. No one has been there except me, for that is where I am from.
"How can you be an esteemed teacher of God's people and not understand that there is a difference between earthly and heavenly things, and between earthly and heavenly ways? When I said, 'You must be born again,' you immediately thought I was speaking of earthly, physical birth, although that is absurd because you know that no one is born twice physically, so you should have known I was not speaking of a second, physical birth. You should have known it was a spiritual reference. You yourself admit that I am a teacher who has come from God. Does it make sense to you that God would send me from heaven to bring you an earthly message, and an absurd one at that?"
* Scripture citations are from the NASB.