Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
The stories that John recounts in his Gospel are not randomly chosen. They all have deep theological significance. What then is the point of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus? At its heart lies the argument that the spiritual regeneration of the human heart is not a natural event. Rebirth is the work of the Spirit of God. Unless the Spirit opens our eyes we will never recognise the truth of the kingdom. Until the Spirit softens our hearts we remain emotionally closed to the love of God. Every event of spiritual worth in our lives is an outworking of the unseen Spirit of God empowering us. Jesus appears frustrated that certain Jewish theological teachers like Nicodemus don’t understand these things.
Further, the story indicates that the Spirit is not a power that can be manipulated or controlled by human words or actions. Simon the sorcerer wrongly thought he could buy the gift of the Spirit (Acts 8:18). The Spirit is rather an independent reality with the sort of freedom seen in a swirling breeze. ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.’
How did early Christians understand the Spirit in relation to God? Their experience of the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost and reality of the Spirit in their regular worship was for them the foretaste of the coming kingdom of God and clear evidence of the enthronement of Christ. They understood the Spirit both as the active power of God in the world and also the present reality of the risen Christ among them. What is particularly significant is that they began to view the Spirit in personal terms. It was possible to grieve the Spirit (Eph 4:30); certain things seemed good to the Spirit (Acts 14:28); the Spirit forbade Paul to speak the word of God in Asia (Acts 16:6). In short, the early Christians were wrestling with the idea of the Holy Spirit as a divine person, distinct but not separable from the Son and the Father.
Come Holy Spirit, come. Come upon us in our sadness and clothe us with a garland instead of ashes.
Come promised Counsellor and lead us gently to the deeper truth about who you are and who we are.
Come mighty wind upon the valley of dry bones that is our church; breathe on this fallen army that we might again live.
Come also upon me holy Comforter in my own hidden and secret need. Come Holy Spirit, come. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Alan Spence is a retired minister and Convenor of the Faith and Order Committee.