John 3: 1-36 – Use of “water” together with “Spirit”

Why then does the evangelist of the Gospel of John use “water” together with “Spirit”? Water is the symbol of “Spirit” in the gospel of John (Jn 7: 37-39; 19: 34). If so, why this repetition? This is an intentional repetition because the evangelist wants to indicate the concrete way in the Church for being reborn in Spirit, namely baptism. It is through baptism that the spiritual begetting from God takes place. Such reference to Christian baptism may not have been part of the original “sitz im Leben”. But the expression might have been part of the original scene with a reference to general sense of baptism.

There is another level of explanation given to Nicodemus based on the nature of wind. Both in Greek (pneuma) and Hebrew (Ruah) the word for wind and Spirit is same. This is a play of words. The spiritually begotten person becomes unpredictable and charismatic like wind. Wind was considered an extraordinary, mysterious and powerful phenomenon of nature as it blows suddenly and takes direction which is unpredictable. Being led by the Spirit every Christian becomes charismatic.

To Nicodemus who thinks that all these are impossible, Jesus answers in the tone of rebuke: “Are you a teacher…?” (Jn 3: 10). Whatever Jesus revealed was based on the Old Testament, especially on the prophetic teachings. Hence a teacher of Israel could have very well understood them.

In this dialogue Jesus showed that Nicodemus who presumes he knows the identity of Jesus, actually does not know. His knowledge is rather rational and logical (ginosko, in Greek). Whereas what is required is the experiential and immediate knowledge (oida, in Greek). Experiential knowledge is received through the rebirth from above through the action of God. This is a rebirth in Spirit, concretely made possible through Baptism. Jesus was in fact leading Nicodemus from the earthly realm to the heavenly realm (Jn 3: 12). Only Jesus can speak authentically about heavenly things since Jesus alone came from heaven. He is the authentic revealer of the Father and the revelation of the Father because nobody else has seen the Father (Jn 1: 18).

Jesus interprets further the meaning of rebirth from above in relation to his own crucial presence in the history articulated through the imagery of “lifting up of the Son of Man”, like “the serpent lifted up in the wilderness” (Jn 3: 14). The Old Testament background for this is Book of Numbers 21: 9. The people were preparing to journey from Mount Hor around Edom and they became impatient and rebellious and murmured against God and Moses. God punished them by sending fiery serpents. When people cried to God, he commanded Moses to make a fiery serpent and raise it upon a pole. When Moses lifted up the bronze serpent upon the pole, whoever bitten by the fiery serpent looked at it, they were saved. The point of comparison in the Gospel of John is the salvation experienced by the people by looking at the serpent. Jesus, lifted upon the Cross will be the source of salvation for the people.

The “lifting up” refers to the paschal mystery of Christ. The source of salvation is Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, and was risen. So the rebirth from above actually means incorporation into the paschal mystery of Christ. This is equal to “believing” in Jesus, the crucified, dead, and risen Messiah. “To believe” means to establish a relationship of personal commitment to Jesus by participating in his passion, death, and resurrection.

Thereafter, the words of Jesus points to the basic principle of inner dynamism at work in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus or in the lifting up of the Son of Man. The principle of love. In John 3: 16, we have the most succinct, intensive and crystallized articulation of the mystery of God’s love revealed in the death of Jesus. If the self-revelation of God in the Bible is essentially the revelation of love, then the complete, climatic point of the same is the death of Jesus Christ.

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