(John 3:6 ESV) 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Verse 6 implies that we cannot enter the Kingdom except as spirit. To be born of the Spirit (the emphasis is on Spirit) is to, in some sense, become spirit. What on earth does that mean?
Well, we’re earlier told that the Word became flesh. Now Jesus tells us that flesh must become spirit. Must humans be de-incarnated? (That’s still not very clear, is it?)
(1Co 15:50 ESV) 50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
That’s surely pretty much the same thought. Indeed, Paul also says,
(1Co 15:44-46 ESV) 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.
The scriptures use the “Kingdom” in a not yet/already sense. The Kingdom has come (at Pentecost). But the Kingdom has not come in its fullness. That happens when Jesus returns. We live in in-between times.
Christians presently live in the in-between Kingdom in an in-between condition. We are still natural flesh, but we’ve received the Spirit, giving us a spiritual component. We are no longer merely physical. (The Jews did not envision humans as being flesh + soul. They considered body and soul to be a physical unity.)
When Jesus returns, our physical bodies that have the Spirit will be transformed to be “spiritual” bodies — not bodies made out of spirit but bodies made by the spirit. Exactly what they will be like we don’t know, but Jesus’ post-resurrection body is an example. It’s a mystery beyond comprehension.
And so when we enter the Kingdom in its fullness, we will do so having spiritual bodies, transformed by the Spirit. Spirit begets spirit.
(John 3:7-8 ESV) 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born [begotten] 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 [begotten] of the Spirit.”
“Again” here and back in v. 3 is ambiguous in the Greek. There’s an intentional play on words, lost in translation. The translators of the NET Bible explain,
The word ἄνωθεν (anothen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in John 3:3, John 3:7; John 3:31; John 19:11 and John 19:23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (John 3:3, John 3:7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.
If Jesus’ point was “from above” while Nicodemus understood “again,” as the translators say, then Jesus’ emphasis was, as we should expect, on the Spirit. Indeed, v. 8 makes this exceedingly plain. When Jesus himself explains his phrase “born again/from above,” he speaks in terms of the work of the Spirit. His explanation says nothing of water baptism. The strong emphasis in on the work Jesus does through the Spirit.
And, of course, as we considered in the last post, “begotten from above” sounds very much like —
(Luk 1:35 ESV) 35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.”
Verse 8 is wonderfully enigmatic. Jesus seems to explain that the Spirit is unexplainable. Recall that “Spirit” can also be translated “breath” or “wind.” Jesus is borrowing a word play from this wondrous passage (don’t skip this one!) —
(Eze 37:1-14 NIV) The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD. ‘”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.'”
10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD. ‘”
Jesus was promising the Kingdom by the power of Spirit, a time and place when dry bones would be enfleshed and given life by the Spirit — Spirit would beget breath (life) — rescuing the dry bones from the grave and creating an army for the Lord.
But, Jesus, says, the Spirit is not controlled by man. He blows where he wills. He comes “from the four winds,” everywhere and anywhere.
This, Jesus says, is not merely the nature of the Spirit, but also the nature of those begotten by the Spirit.
Here’s my take — and I’m open to suggestions. All with faith in Jesus will receive the Spirit. The Spirit will transform us. Initially, it’s to shape our hearts, minds, and characters to become more like Jesus. When Jesus returns, even our bodies will become like Jesus’ post-resurrection body.
But the Spirit’s work will sometimes be very subtle, unnoticeable, like the wind, perceptible only from its results. Look out the window. You can’t see the wind, but you can see whether it’s blowing by its results. Thus it is with those begotten by the Spirit.
However, just like the wind, sometimes the work of the Spirit is overwhelming and unmistakable. We just shouldn’t imagine that this is the only way, or even the normal way, the Spirit works.
Plainly, those who write rule books laying out what the Spirit will and won’t, can and can’t do, and when the Spirit is allowed to act, contradict this passage. The Spirit is a person, acting by his will, not by some preacher’s book of rules.
Finally, since Jesus is speaking particularly to the process of conversion, he seems to be saying that we should not imagine that we can control or predict the Spirit in terms of who will and will not be saved. “The wind blows where it wishes.” The Spirit is not under our control.
And this certainly was proven true at the conversion of Cornelius, when the Spirit was poured out on Cornelius even though Peter had not baptized them. Indeed, many of those present would have refused baptism, because these were Gentiles. But the Spirit was not constrained by man.