Born Again: Jesus and Nicodemus (part one)
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In ancient Jewish tradition, the land of Israel is the center point of the world, and Jerusalem is the center of Israel. The temple is the center of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies is the center of the temple and at the center of the Holy of Holies lies a foundation stone. It is was upon that stone, say the sages of Israel, that the very world was made.
Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah, claims to be that foundation stone, the very rock upon which the new temple is built. It is not a coincidence that he uses this image of the rock when he speaks about building his witnessing body, "on this rock." The rock here refers to several things: the revelation of Jesus' divine identity evidenced by Peter's Spirit-inspired confession; the divine origin of his teachings; and his ongoing leadership over his apostles and his people.
The church Jesus is building is none other than the temple of the Holy Spirit. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?" (1 Cor 6:19). You here is corporate, you—as his people—"like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Pet 2:5)
Building this holy habitation is to be our priority so that the glory of God can come down, advance the kingdom, and accomplish his redemptive will. Jesus made it all possible. He is the source from which the living water, the Holy Spirit of the living God, is now pouring out upon his people. "For it stands in Scripture: 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.'" (1 Pet 2:6)
Let's all speak Hebrew and say, amen! Thank you, Lord!
Now go with me to John chapter three to explore a familiar but seldom understood story of Yeshua's encounter with Nicodemus. To better grasp what's going on here, we need some relevant background to the Second Temple Period Jewish understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, of baptism, and of being born again.
We could say in a comprehensive way that the Jewish sages understood the Spirit of God to be functioning, primarily, in two significant ways; as the source of prophecy and the source of purification. The common mode of expression was the Spirit of God (ruach Adonai). The terminology Holy Spirit was not used that much, only three times in the Hebrew Scriptures although it is used quite a lot in the writings of the sectarians living at Qumran.
The first role of God's Spirit, in the Jewish thinking of Yeshua's day, was related to prophecy. The Spirit of truth functioned to inspire the prophets in the writing of sacred scripture. That's why it was considered authoritative and God-breathed (in-spirited), even as Paul says to Timothy. That same Spirit, from the Jewish point-of-view, was key to the proper interpretation, application, and transmission of holy scripture.
However, by the time of Jesus, the prophetic office aspect of the Spirit was understood to have ended with the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. They did not believe the Spirit was still speaking prophetically through people. With one important exception.
The general belief was that the prophetic office would be restored at the end of days. It would be marked with the return of the prophet Elijah, who would prepare the way for the Messiah and his messianic kingdom. In the last days the Spirit of God, as it were, would return to his temple and prophetic utterance would again go forth.
The second role of God's Spirit, in the Jewish thinking of Yeshua's day, was related to purification. The Essenes, a sectarian community at Qumran, exemplified this way of thinking. You see, they had withdrawn from Jerusalem and the temple feeling it had become corrupted by the priesthood and leaders of the people. They had to find, as it were, an alternative means, of atonement, of forgiveness of sins, cleansing, and purification. They related the purifying waters of ritual immersion with the purifying aspect of the Spirit of holiness.
These self-proclaimed Sons of Light are awaiting the arrival of Messiah in the wilderness, according to Isaiah 40:3. Most scholars believe that John the Baptist was influenced by these ideas, though we can't say for sure. We do know that when he comes on the scene, he is in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in other words, for cleansing and purification. He goes on to say the Messiah is coming and he will baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire.
As you can see, there was a vibrant cluster of ideas and anticipation related to the roles of God's Spirit in the Second Temple Period. Both aspects, prophecy, and purification, feature prominently in John's Gospel. In the early chapters 1-12, there is more of an emphasis upon the purifying role of the Holy Spirit working through Jesus. In the latter chapters, 13 and following, there is more emphasis on the prophetic, revelatory role of the Holy Spirit working through Jesus.
Though both aspects are utilized, keep in mind what a radical contrast the early church (full of Jewish believers in Jesus) was to the prevailing Jewish views of the Holy Spirit. They claimed that in fact, the Spirit of God had indeed returned. Jesus the Messiah, the Spirit-bearer, was crucified and resurrected and is now the Spirit-baptizer! The in-dwelling Spirit of God mediates his presence to his people as the source of purification, transforming power, and inspired utterance.
Remember, why was all this possible? Because the eschatological kingdom of the last days had broken into the present when King Jesus came. The kingdom of God is here, and will one day be fully consummated. Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to join his movement, to become an active part in what this influential Pharisee has been praying, hoping, and waiting for.
Knowing the contextual background of the Spirit related to both prophecy and purification provides essential insights into their discussion. We'll pick that up next week.