Posted by: mattcolvin | October 27, 2006

John 3:8

Reposted from Fragmenta.

(Some Greek New Testament notes from Tuesday night Bible study at the island’s only church, the mainline United Church of Canada. I had a very good time studying the Word with some congenial and friendly brothers and sisters. James Jordan’s patient remarks on the mainline churches in Sociology of the Church definitely apply.)

I have long been puzzled by John 3:8. Partly this is because I have spent most of my life just hearing it read in Church, usually out of an English translation that does something like the NKJV does:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Greek: τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ’ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὗτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος.

What is meant by “so” in the last sentence? Everyone born of the Spirit is… what? The way the verse is translated, one might well expect that it means:

1. “Everyone born of the Spirit blows where he or she wishes.”
2. Or, “Everyone born of the Spirit cannot tell where the wind comes from and where it is going.”

But these make no sense. To begin with, we will never figure out the flow of thought by staring at an English translation that wrongly sets up a metaphor involving “the wind.” The argument is instead a genetic one: what is true of the Spirit (not “wind”) is also true of men who are born of the Spirit.

But what is it that is true of both? That is, what does Jesus mean by “so is…” (οὗτως ἐστὶν)?

I would propose we look ahead to 8:14, where Jesus says “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going (πόθεν ἦλθον καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγω); but you do not know where I come from and where I am going (πόθεν ἦλθον καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγω).” These last words are the very same that are used of the Spirit back in 3:8.

We should consider the context as well. Although Nicodemus is probably going to meet us in heaven (he sticks up for Jesus’ legal rights in 7:50, and opens his conversation in 3:2 with very complimentary language, calling Jesus “Rabbi” and crediting Him with coming from God, because of the works He does), nonetheless, the fact remains that he is “of the Pharisees” (3:1). We have seen the Pharisees inquiring about John the Baptist in 1:24-27; it seems they made it their business to inquire about potential Messiah movements.

It is the Pharisees who accuse Jesus of false witness about his Messiahship in 8:13, provoking the response that they know neither His origin nor His destination. The meaning is surely that they are not qualified to testify or judge concerning His claims to be the Messiah.

I submit that 3:8 has the same meaning: Jesus is rejecting Nicodemus’ role as any kind of judge of Him or His messianic movement. Jesus has been “born of the Spirit”, both in His conception — “The Spirit of the Most High will overshadow you” (though this is not in John’s gospel) — and, more importantly, in His baptism in John 1:32-33: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove.” We recall from the other gospels that this was the occasion on which the Father pronounced from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love”, echoing Psalm 2: “You are my son, today I have begotten you.”

Jesus is also referring to others beyond Himself: that is the point of saying “so is everyone born of the Spirit”, πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. The rulers of the Jews and the Pharisees are incompetent to judge Jesus’ followers because they do not know where they come from or where they are going. We see this quite concretely in the case of the Sanhedrin in Acts 5, where Gamaliel convinces the council to avoid doing anything, since it was unclear whether “this plan or this work is of men” or “of God.” In other words, Gamaliel points out that the council does not know where the disciples come from or where they are going. So it is with everyone born, i.e. baptized, with the Holy Spirit.


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