New birth, Spirit, and Wind
I never met the man, so I don’t know for sure. We are not given many personal details, so I cannot say for certain, but my impression of Nicodemus (in John 3) is that he was a good person, deeply religious, and knowledgeable about the Scriptures and about spiritual matters. But it also seems to me that he was keenly aware that something was missing in his life, and that what was missing in him was alive in Jesus.
When he listened to Jesus speak and when he watched Jesus in action, he recognized a spiritual vitality that was not present in his own life. He wanted those things to come to life in him, so he went to Jesus one night to talk it over.
He began the discussion in a tactful manner: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Reading between the lines, what Nicodemus seems to be saying is: “I am curious about who you are, and about what is going on inside of you, and about how you are able to do the things that you do. But most of all, I am curious about the apparent intimate connection between you and God that is missing in my life.”
That certainly seems to be what Jesus hears coming out of the heart of Nicodemus for that is what Jesus addresses in his reply: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus addresses Nicodemus’ desire for spiritual vitality by telling him that the way to get it is through a new birth.
Jesus’ suggestion of a new birth confuses Nicodemus. It is not the concept of new birth that confuses Nicodemus. The Pharisees looked upon a gentile who converted to Judaism as having been reborn. The rabbis taught, “A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a new-born child.” So thorough was their perspective of a new life beginning that any sins committed prior to one’s conversion were now forgotten. One’s old life was gone; a new life had begun. Some even argued that a man who converted to Judaism was free to marry his sister—or even his mother—because even his old family connections were now considered obsolete. He was a brand new person.
But Nicodemus did not understand how the concept of a new birth applied to him. He belonged to the nation of Israel—the people of God—since the moment he took his first breath. What could it mean for him to be born from above?
Nicodemus seemed to recognize that the spiritual vitality that was alive in Jesus was missing in his own life, but he had always assumed that the key to spiritual vitality was found in such things as a life of devotion, compiling enough good deeds, and establishing a solid record of sacred service. He had thought that the way to gain spiritual vitality was by hanging out long enough in good spiritual places and by doing enough good spiritual things.
But it doesn’t work that way. That kind of thinking is as foolish as it would be for a woman who wants to have a baby thinking that she will get pregnant if she hangs out long enough in a cabbage patch, or if she sleeps in a stork’s nest, or if she volunteers in a maternity ward. She will not get pregnant by hanging out in prime “pregnancy areas.” Nor will Nicodemus gain spiritual vitality merely by hanging out in the top religious environments.
Something as wild and extreme as a new birth is needed.
In response to Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus replies (in verse 5), “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus’ words here hearken back to the opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [Spirit] from God swept over the face of the waters.”
What Nicodemus needed in his life was something as wild and extreme as a new creation!
Nicodemus had been discovering for himself that spiritual vitality does not come from strict religious discipline. What Jesus wanted him to know is that it comes from being born from above; it comes from the Spirit of God bringing life into a person’s soul.
Rachel Held Evans puts it this way: “The Spirit is like wind, earth’s oldest sojourner, which in one place readies a sail, in another whittles a rock, in another commands the trees to bow, in another gently lifts a bridal veil. Wind knows no perimeter. The wildest of all things, it travels to every corner of a cornerless world and amplifies the atmosphere. It smells like honeysuckle, curry, smoke, sea. It feels like a kiss, a breath, a burn, a sting. It can whisper or whistle or roar, bend and break and inflate. It can be harnessed, but never stopped or contained; its effects observed while its essence remains unseen. To chase the wind is folly, they say, to try and tame it the very definition of futility. ‘The wind blows where it pleases,’ Jesus said. ‘You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). We are born into a windy world, where the Spirit is steady as a breeze and as strong as a hurricane. There is no city, no village, no wilderness where you cannot find it, so pay attention.” (Searching for Sunday, p. 163)
That’s what Nicodemus needed for spiritual vitality. It’s what we need as well.