In John chapter 3, Jesus has an interesting conversation with a man named Nicodemus, who was a wealthy Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the legislative body of the Jews. In short, he was a part of the most highly educated and affluent circle of his milieu.
We see again and again in scripture that when people have an experience with Jesus, their lives are transformed forever. Nicodemus didn’t know what the deal was with Jesus, not yet, but something about Jesus had captivated him, and he came with a humble heart ready to be taught, calling Jesus “Rabbi,” and asking him questions. This, from one of the preeminent religious teachers and an expert on the law. Asking for theological insight from a social nobody, a carpenter, from a poor family in a poor mountain town. It was unprecedented. Or it would have been, if we weren’t talking about, you know, God.
Nicodemus tries to start slow with a very typical logical Rabbinic dialogue, but Jesus, who liked to answer the questions that people hadn’t asked, yet were truly what their hearts wanted to know, gets right to the point. Jesus tells him about being born again, which means being spiritually reborn by the perfecting and redemptive power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in verse 5 that one can only enter the kingdom of God if one is born of “water and the Spirit.” But what does that mean exactly, and who or what is the Spirit, really?
Well, the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity. He possesses all of the divine attributes of God (he is eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and holy), but he also plays a distinct role in the story of redemption as the one that empowers and equips believers to complete God’s mission of spreading the gospel of Jesus in a broken world. The Spirit has existed from the beginning and was an agent of creation, along with Christ. St. Irenaeus refers to the work of the Son and the Spirit in creation as the “two hands of God,” as evidenced in Psalm 33:6, which says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ruach, which also means breath or wind. Picture the Spirit of God “hovering over the face of the waters” in Genesis 1:2. The Spirit also sustains all of creation; Job 34:14-15 tells us, “If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.”
Additionally, the Holy Spirit makes us new creatures in Christ Jesus, who redeems us from the curse of the law so we can receive the Spirit (Galatians 3:13-14). When we are filled with the Spirit, we experience the power of the Spirit, which fills us with deep joy, peace, and boldness. And when we walk in the Spirit, we reflect the character of Christ and bear the fruit of the Spirit. The ultimate purpose of the Spirit is to glorify the Son (John 16:14).
Now that the introductions are over, let’s get back to Jesus and Nicodemus, because Jesus is explaining a very complex and beautiful metaphor. When Jesus tells Nicodemus of the water and the spirit, he is not referring to baptism, but to the spiritual cleansing God wants for his people, which we read about in Ezekiel chapter 36, when God says:
“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (24-28).
In chapter 37, God proceeds to direct Ezekiel to look out over the valley, which was littered with old, dry bones (which, gross) and to prophesy over the dry bones so that they would come to life. Okay, God. Ezekiel is apparently not scared of a little Walking Dead action, so he says: “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD” (5-6). So Ezekiel obeys and the bones stand up, but they are still not alive until God commands his breath to enter them. Remember that Hebrew word ruach? Breath. Wind. Spirit. The chapter ends with the prophecy that God will make his dwelling among his people (remember how Jesus tabernacled among us?!), and the nations will know that God is the Lord.
Spoiler: we are the dry bones. We are the dead. We are completely dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13). We have no life in us nor any power within ourselves to regenerate. We are utterly lost. But if we are believers, Christ has cleansed us from all uncleannesses by the power of his blood and the Spirit has indwelt us, giving us new hearts and new life. This is an incredible gift. And each day, the Spirit prompts us to fight the good fight of the faith, to draw near to God, and to reflect the image of Christ. What an honor, friends! This is the story of redemption that Jesus tells Nicodemus that night, using the ancient stories with which Nicodemus was familiar. Nicodemus’ mind is blown. “How can this be?” he asks. Maybe he is starting to understand that the law, which he has studied his entire life and in fact has memorized, is entirely about the man sitting across the table from him. I like to think that Nicodemus became born again that night, but the scripture doesn’t say. We see him again in John 7, urging his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law says they must hear Jesus out before condemning him. And again in John 19, giving Jesus’ body a royal embalming with a king’s wealth of spices. As Jesus said, we never know when or how the Spirit will move, but we do know that God is always at work through the power of his Spirit in us and all around us. It is our privilege to play a small part in the story of what God is doing in his world. Let us cry out to the Spirit that by his power and presence the world will come to know our God.
Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass