In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus asked the ruler a question which had implications that are often overlooked:
" ... Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?"
Properly translated, this question reads: "Art thou the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?" The use of the definite article before teacher implies that Nicodemus held a high and unique position in regard to the religious instruction in Israel. Some commentators speculate that he may have been the Chakim, or wise one who customarily sat at the right hand of the High Priest in meetings of the Sanhedrin and to whom were referred questions regarding the Old Testament for settlement. If Nicodemus did hold such a position, then he was an expert on the O.T.; and, the question of Jesus strongly implies that he was considered such an authority. The further implication of Jesus' words is that such an authority should have known immediately what he (Jesus) was talking about when he referred to being born anew. But how would anyone uninstructed in Christian theology be expected to understand the fact of regeneration? Such an expectation seems absurd. Yet it is obvious that Jesus did feel that Nicodemus, as the teacher of Israel, should have understood what he was talking about.
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Let us examine the teaching of Jesus regarding the new birth in order to learn how Nicodemus could have been expected to understand it.
The first statement of Jesus on the subject is in verse 3:
"Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God."
The word translated again is the Greek word anothen, which is an adverb both of time and place. As an adverb of time, it means again; as an adverb of place, it means from above. Nicodemus, judging by his response, understood it as again, for in verse four he asked in surprise:
" ... How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
It is plain to the Christian that Jesus was using the term anothen in both its senses, for while the new birth is, of necessity, a being born again, it is as well, a being born from above.
In answer to the puzzled question of Nicodemus, Jesus made His second pronouncement regarding the new birth:
"Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God".
"The word translated water here is hudor in its genitive form. The word translated spirit is pneuma, also in its genitive form. The word hudor means water of any kind, or rivers, rain water, and then, rain."
Liddell & Scott's Classic Greek Dictionary
The word pneuma means spirit, wind, breath. Now, strange as it may seem, it is all but a certainty that Nicodemus did not understand Jesus to say born of water and of the Spirit. For when a person hears a word, used by a speaker, which has more than one meaning, his mind automatically selects that meaning which best fits the context in which the word is used, or which associates more readily with the words used with it. Now to our minds, saturated by nearly two millennia of Christian theology, there is nothing incongruous about associating water with the Spirit, but to the Jewish mind of Nicodemus it was a different matter. There can be little serious doubt that he immediately associated with the idea of water, not the Spirit, but the wind. The exact word, pneuma is translated wind in v. 8. It is also a virtual certainty that, having associated the word water with the wind meaning of pneuma, his mind automatically flashed back to the word hudor, and gave it the more precise meaning of rain water, or rain, since that meaning would better fit with the idea of wind. There is but little doubt in my mind, therefore, that Nicodemus understood Jesus to say:
"... Except a man be bom of rain and the wind, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God."
I am also firmly convinced that this is exactly what Jesus intended him to understand for he went on to say:
"That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is bom of the wind is wind".
If Nicodemus was beginning at this point to think of pneuma as spirit because of the contrast with flesh, the further statement of Jesus must have banished it from his mind:
"The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hear it the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the wind."
John 3:8. (I am giving the word pneuma the significance of wind throughout.)
No wonder Nicodemus asked in amazement:
"How can these things be?"
However, the question of Jesus in vs. 10 reveals that Nicodemus, as the teacher of Israel, should have known what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of being born again, from above, of rain and of the wind. For it is possible to interpret this symbolism in the light of the Old Testament. Isaiah 55:10 says:
"For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and retumeth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater: so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: It shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it."
"As the rain - so is my word." And the rain, as a type of the word, is said to cause the earth to bring forth. (Heb. Yalad - the exact equivalent of the Greek word translated be born in John 3:5).
The wind is connected with the idea of being reborn in Ezekiel 37:1-10, where the prophet is shown a valley of dry bones to which he is told to prophesy. As he does so, the bones come together in their proper order, the flesh and skin cover the bones, but there is still no life in them. Then he is told:
"... prophesy unto the wind, (Heb. ruach, wind, spirit, exactly equivalent to the Greek pneuma), prophesy; son of man, and say to the wind: "Thus saith the LORD God; Come from the four winds, 0 breath, (ruach) and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."
In verse 14, the LORD says:
" ... and will put my spirit in you".
The word for spirit is ruach, translated wind and breath in vs. 9. This verse is a graphic illustration of regeneration: they who were dead are made alive, and that by the action of the wind, as the symbol of the Spirit of God.
Thus we see how both rain and wind are connected with the idea of making alive, of bringing forth; and that rain (or water in general) is a type of the Word of God, while the wind is a type of the Spirit of God, which is reinforced by the fact that both ideas are denoted by the same Hebrew and the same Greek word. The fact that Jesus actually was speaking in earthly symbols is attested by the fact that in John 3:12, he says to Nicodemus:
"If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things".
In other words, if you cannot understand the earthly symbols, how can you expect to understand the heavenly realities? Nicodemus has not yet answered that question.
John H Mattox