The tribe of Jesus people my family regularly share our lives with has been working through the Gospel of John on Thursday nights. The thing about this unique account of the life of Jesus is that no matter how many times I engage with it, it surprises me with things I’ve never noticed and with things I have. I mean, I taught this book three times a day for an entire semester three years in a row, and it is still fresh, challenging, and life-giving!
What stands out to me in this Gospel is the mystical theme of the Spirit-led and God-revealed life. Jesus is very clear in this Gospel that his actions are simply and humbly based on this: “I can’t do anything on my own. I do what I see the Father doing…and He shows it to me because He loves me” (John 5:19-20 paraphrased), and, even though it isn’t explicitly stated, this revelation seems directly connected to the idea of being led by the Spirit.
Jesus, Bearer and Giver of the Spirit
From the beginning of the Gospel, the theme of the Spirit is present. In chapter 1 John the Baptist declares:
“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 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.’”(John 1.32–33 ESV)
So, it is clear only a section later when the Baptist recognizes and announces Jesus to his own followers as “the one”, that in this Gospel Jesus is understood from the very beginning to be Jesus is the bearer and giver of the Spirit.
Spirit in Context
The notion of “spirit” in the first century Jewish context was complex. A study of the word ruach, the Hebrew word for “spirit”, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, can be quite baffling within the broad range of ways that the word is used (it appears 668 times in about 120 of the 727 non-biblical manuscripts). In those texts ruach is used external divine forces, mental states, the intellect, emotions, the guiding force behind decisions as well as predestination, the Spirit of God, power, simple breath, and a mixture of all of the above.
Additionally, while there is a distinction between “spirit” and “flesh”, the concept of ruach wasn’t simply a matter of physical or not physical, this worldly or other-wordly. Spirit in a first century Mediterranean context could have a sense of “body”, having a sort of physicality to it. The word “spirit” in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) also means “wind” or “breath”, both of which you can hear, physically feel, often smell, and sometimes even see. Wind and breath make things move in the physical world. It moves both sea and desert sand, and it is breath that keeps us animated. Like God, spirit/ruach is invisible, yet obvious, living, and present. Indeed, “God is spirit” (John 4:24).
Additionally, in Hebrew the concept of nephesh, soul, has at it’s root the idea of a breathing thing. That’s why in Genesis 1 all the land creatures (unlike fish which do not breathe) are each nephesh chayah, a living soul (ESV “living creature”, “living being”, Genesis 1:24; 2:7). A nephesh has ruach, breath. Without breath, the “in and out” movement of ruach, felt and seen, we cease to be a living things. That’s how pivotal the idea of spirit was. Human beings are unique in the Genesis 2 account because their life was actually breathed into them by God: “…YHWH God formed the man from the dust of the ground and exhaled into his nostrils the air of life, and the man became a living being [a nephesh hayah]” (Genesis 2.7). From the biblical perspective, the breath of God is the source of our very life, turning earthy flesh into a living, animated being.
Born of Spirit
In his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus takes these concepts and runs with them. In their interaction Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see the Kingdom of God one has to be “born from above” and to enter the kingdom one must be “born of water and Spirit”, or possibly, “born of water which is Spirit” (John 3:5).
Jesus even states that whatever is “born of flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of spirit is spirit.” Is spirit? We must be born of water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom, so we must also be spirit? What does this even mean!? It surely doesn’t mean we become non-physical entities in a “spirit world”. That’s not the theme of John, where the Word, the One truly born of Spirit, is also walking around with a body. The One who is Spirit was also in the world and in the flesh. This idea was so difficult for some in the early church that they rejected it and believed that the Christ only appeared to be in the flesh (this was called Docetism and was considered a heresy).
As the conversation with Nicodemus continues, Jesus plays with the nuances of spirit in ways that are not obvious in English translations. Jesus says the following:
The pneuma, where it wants, it blows/breathes (pnei),
and it’s sound/voice (phoné) you hear,
but you haven’t known from where it comes and to where it goes,
thus it is with all who are born of the pneumatos.
It’s easy to understand why Nicodemus would have had difficulty with this. It sounded like this: “The wind blows where it wants. Though you hear it’s sound, you don’t know where it’s coming from or going. So it is with everyone born of the wind.” Perhaps this reveals that the distinction between the physical wind or breath, moving life-giving air, and “the Spirit” was not as clearly defined in their culture as we think today. Whatever the case, Jesus equates the mysterious and unfathomable motion of the wind with the lives of those born of the Spirit. There’s an natural unpredictability to the Spirit-born life.
The Spirit is Given
The above passages also prove to be central themes to the rest of the Gospel of John, where there are echoes of them in almost every chapter, where people hear Jesus’ voice (phoné) but don’t know “where he comes from or where he’s going” (John 7:27-28, 35; 8:14; 9:29-30; 13:36). Later in the Gospel, it is Jesus who now “breathes into” (enphusésen) the disciples and tells them to receive the pneuma (John 20:22), fulfilling John the Baptist’s description of Jesus as the one who baptizes in Spirit and echoing back to the creation of man in Genesis 2, where the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture uses the same verb enphusésen for the moment when God breathed life into Adam. Until this point, according the Gospel of John, “there was not yet Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). However, speaking of the Spirit Jesus had told his disciples that, “whoever trusts in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” and that the Spirit would “be with them and in them”—and now the day to receive the Spirit had come. This is the beginning of new creation and new life for humanity.