“…Spirit and Life”: John 3:7-8

John 3:7-8

Today’s note continues with the second half of Jesus’ exposition in Jn 3:5-8, part of the discourse covering verses 1-21. The first half (vv. 5-6) was discussed in the previous daily note. Both portions are meant to explain the central saying of Jesus in verse 3. If we consider each verse, or statement, of the exposition in its place, we see the following outline:

    • Verse 5—Re-statement of the central saying, explaining “from above” (a&nwqen) as “out of [i.e. from] the Spirit” (e)k pneu/mato$)
    • Verse 6—Contrast between being born “out of the flesh” (ordinary human birth) with being born “out of the Spirit” (birth from above)
    • Verse 7—Identification of “(born) out of the Spirit” back again with “(born) from above”
    • Verse 8—Illustration from the natural world, helping to explain “born out of the Spirit”

There is a certain parallelism between the two portions of this exposition:

    • Identification “from above” = “out of the Spirit” (v. 5)
      • Contrast between ordinary human birth and spiritual birth (v. 6)
    • Identification “out of the Spirit” = “from above” (v. 7)
      • Example illustrating how spiritual birth differs from ordinary birth, etc (v. 8)

The entire tone of vv. 7-8 is parabolic, beginning with the statement in verse 7:

“Do not wonder that I said to you (that) it is necessary (for) you to come to be (born) from above”

This sets the stage for the illustration in verse 8. As in the many parables of Jesus recorded in the Synoptic Tradition, simple illustrations from the natural world and daily life are used to convey deeper spiritual truth. Jesus himself makes this especially clear in Mark 4:11 par (addressed to his close followers): “To you has been given the secret [musth/rion] of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, these (thing)s come to be (for them) in parables [lit. (saying)s cast alongside]”. A similar sort of example, taken from observation of the natural world, is given to Nicodemus:

“The blowing [i.e. of the wind] blows where it wishes and you hear its voice, but (yet) you have not seen where it comes (from) and where it leads (itself back) under—so (it) is (for) every one having come to be born out of the blowing (of God)”

This illustration involves a bit of wordplay in the Greek which is virtually impossible to capture in English translation. I have tried to preserve it here by translating pneu=ma in its fundamental sense of “(something) blowing” (i.e. wind, breath). In the first half of the saying, pneu=ma refers essentially to the wind, and the verb pne/w to the blowing of the wind. As mentioned previously, in ancient thought, the wind was often described as the breath of God, so the wind naturally serves as a correlative image for describing the Spirit of God. The main point of the illustration, often obscured in translation, is between hearing and seeing:

    • “you hear [a)kou/ei$] the voice [i.e. sound]” of the wind, but
    • “you have not seen [ou)k oi@da$] where it comes from”, etc

This contrast is precisely parallel to the ancient theophany experienced by Israel, whereby the people did not see God (YHWH) himself, but only heard his Voice (cf. Deut 4:12, 33ff). The expressions po/qen e&rxetai (“where it comes [from]”) and pou= u(pa/gei (“where it leads [itself] under [i.e. goes back]”) both refer to the source of the wind—i.e. coming and going back. In terms of the Spirit, obviously the source is God (the Father = YHWH). The upshot of the illustration is made explicit in the conclusion of the verse—”so it is (for) every one coming to be (born) out of the Spirit”. The emphasis is not so much on the mysterious (invisible) manner of the birth, but on the source of it—from God (i.e. “from above”). This same emphasis was made already in the Prologue, when the Gospel writer refers to the (spiritual) birth of believers:

“…to them he gave the authority to come to be (the) offspring [i.e. children] of God, to the ones trusting in his name, th(e one)s who, not out of blood and not out of the will of (the) flesh and not out of the will of man—but out of God—came to be (born)” (1:12-13)

Even though God the Father is the source of the Spirit, it comes to believers through the Son (Jesus)—he is the subject of vv. 12-13. The same idea, drawing upon the ancient Sinai theophany, is expressed at the conclusion of the Prologue (v. 18):

“No one has seen God, at any time, (but) the only (born) Son, the (one) being [i.e. who is] in the lap of the Father—that (one) has led Him out (to us)”

The Son’s revelation of the Father is closely tied to the giving/coming of the Spirit to believers—a connection which begins to become clear in the Last Discourse (chapters 14-17).

There is perhaps a special significance to the idea of hearing the voice of the wind (i.e. the Spirit of God). In Exodus 20:19, we have the tradition that the people were unable to bear hearing the voice of God (sounding like terrifying thunder). This, too, is referenced several times in the Johannine discourses, most notably in 5:37:

“And the Father (hav)ing sent me—that (One) has given witness about me; and his voice you have not heard at any time, and you have not seen his visible (form)…”

This lack of hearing/seeing God the Father, while drawing upon the Old Testament tradition, in the context of the discourse actually refers to the disbelief of the people—their failure (or unwillingness) to trust in Jesus:

“…and his Word you do not hold remaining in you, (in) that [i.e. because] the (one) whom that (One) [i.e. God the Father] se(n)t forth—in that (one) you do not trust!” (v. 38)

These same motifs of hearing and seeing run through the Gospel of John. We will encounter them again during the upcoming notes in this series.

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