I’ve been looking forward to John’s gospel. It’s just always a challenge — but an enlightening one — to sort through the text. John has a writing style that is simple and direct, which yet conceals great depth. It’s just a fun, fun book to study. It’s hard, but fun.
The baptism of Jesus
(John 1:32-34 ESV) 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John makes explicit what is suggested by the Synoptics — that the Spirit Jesus received remained on him.
(John 3:5-8 ESV) 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
In the Churches of Christ, this passage is about baptism, but for now, let’s see what it says about the Spirit. Our conversion is a rebirth both of water and “the Spirit.” If the water is obviously present at our conversion, so is the Spirit. In fact, the prophets often spoke of the Spirit being “outpoured” — like water — and so one likely meaning of baptism is to symbolize the pouring out of the Spirit into the convert — so much Spirit that we’re immersed in it!
(Isa 32:14-16 ESV) 14 For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; 15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
(Eze 39:29 ESV) 29 “And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”
(Joe 2:28-29 ESV) And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
(Rom 5:5 ESV) and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
John 3:6 explains that the flesh gives birth to flesh so the Spirit gives birth to Spirit. You see, “spirit” can mean life, but that doesn’t really fit the parallel. Rather, the point is that those born of the Spirit are made out of the same stuff as the Spirit — meaning —
* Immediately, the indwelling Spirit is part of us, changes us, and makes us spiritual beings.
* At the resurrection, the Spirit gives us spiritual bodies (too early to discuss that one!)
So the thought is surely that we are no longer mere flesh and blood. We are animated by God’s special presence within us. It’s not merely that we’re saved — the Jews had been saved for centuries with very few having the Spirit. No, we are saved and transformed.
Jesus next explains that the Spirit is like the wind (pneuma can be translated “spirit,” “wind,” or “breath.”)
The image is surely that we can see and feel the wind’s effects even when we can’t see the wind. Moreover, Jesus says that the Spirit has free will. The Spirit isn’t a fancy term for encouragement or strength. The Spirit is a person who makes choices.
Notice that to a First Century Jew in Palestine, the primary way the wind would be sensed is through feeling the effects, not seeing the effects. It’s desert country — with very few trees. In a desert, the wind is welcome for the feeling it produces. And yet most Christians interpret this verse in light of seeing the Spirit’s effects.
Of course, the sense Jesus actually refers to is hearing. We hear the wind — and we do, but only when it’s a very strong wind! Most Americans would only speak of hearing the wind during a storm. But Jesus says — metaphorically — that we’ll hear the Spirit.
We can’t predict the Spirit. He’s not a rulebook. Rather, he blows where he wills. But Jesus applies the metaphor to those who have the Spirit! It’s not just the Spirit who’s like the wind. So are those “born of the Spirit.” And this is a tough one.
It’s easy enough to give examples where Phillip the Evangelist or Paul were directed to suddenly change plans and “blow” like the wind. But the principle applies to “everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That means us.
We can’t claim that this passage speaks of the baptism of all Christians and then deny that we are all born of the Spirit.
Here’s my take — and I’m open to suggestions! First, as a Christian, the Spirit’s work in my life is not reducible to rules or principles. The Spirit does with me as he pleases — and I may well not realize that my decisions and actions are even prompted by the Spirit. The Spirit can be subtle — like a gentle breeze — not even noticeable until someone points it out.
I remember as a very young child, intent on being a scientist, first learning that the air is a “fluid.” I’d never even thought of the air as having substance! I was very young. So I whirled around, feeling the air on my fingertips — there it was! There it was resisting my motion and swirling between my fingers.
I became momentarily aware that my breathing drew in a something that had resistance and substance. I’d been alive for a while — a few years — and had never noticed. It had nothing to do with eating or playing with my toys. I’d just never thought in those terms, but then it became obvious — even though it had kept me alive all this time! I’d never wondered before what made a balloon expand when my mother blew it up! Very cool discovery: air.
Just so, the Spirit’s work in our lives is not so much secret as easily ignored if we wish to ignore it. Most of the time. But then it’s obvious from the scriptures and the experiences of many that the Spirit — like the wind — sometimes knocks you down. I’ve been in Chicago when it was impossible to walk against the wind. I’ve seen tornadoes blow objects from West Alabama to Tennessee! Wind can destroy half a state in one night!
So while the Spirit is never destructive, he can knock your socks off — and Jesus wasn’t talking about the First Century only. He was talking about everyone who’s ever been baptized into Jesus.
Yes, we have free will. But a lot of good that does you in the teeth of a hurricane! Okay, a better analogy is a good stiff wind, the kind that keeps you from walking straight. You can still walk, but some directions are easier than others. And if you’re not careful, some paths will leave you dusting off the seat of your pants.
So the Spirit is often a breeze, but sometimes something more. And there’s no way to reduce the Spirit’s work to five “Spirit principles” in a tract. The Spirit has free will, too.
Whenever I begin to imagine that I’m entirely in control, I remember the day I was chased by a wall cloud in the interstate. I pulled off, fled into a restaurant, only to see the wind roll a one-ton dumpster along the ground like a tumbleweed. At which point I realized I was watching this mass of cast iron floating toward me through a glass door. Not much protection against a ton of high momentum iron. I was scared.
I’m not scared of the Spirit, who loves me. But sometimes I’m scared of what I might be asked to do by God ‘s wind on earth. You see, living in West Alabama, I have a very healthy respect for the wind.