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(John 3:1-11 with Ezekiel 36:25-27)
The concept of the New Birth—aka, “regeneration” (Titus 3:5) or “circumcision of the heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6, 5:28-29 and 10:16)—is found throughout Scripture, but Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are perhaps the Bible’s definitive text on this subject.
Yeshua and Nicodemus
The (ESV) text of John 3:1-11 is a good place to start our investigation:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.1
Notice Yeshua scolding once again, this time scolding Nicodemus: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10b). Jesus criticizes Nicodemus for his ignorance on this subject, thus Nicodemus’ deficiency was his own fault. This can only mean that Jesus’ teaching about the new birth was not his own innovation, but something every student of the Tanakh should have understood. The text demands we understand Yeshua’s teaching about the New Birth as midrash; He is developing an Old Testament text. But can we locate the mother (Old Testament) text(s)?
Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel (who was clearly respected—to the degree that he served as a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin—as John 7:50-51 makes clear), his ignorance regarding the new birth was doubly inexcusable. Was this not a case of the blind leading the blind?
We sinners need to be careful about forming too low an opinion of Nicodemus. Most Jewish leaders back then and many self-described Christian leaders today either deny the need for regeneration or have adopted a mechanical approach in lieu of the sovereign and mysterious infusion of spiritual life to which Jesus alluded in the text above.2 Nicodemus was no dummy. As a rabbi, Nicodemus quite likely had memorized the entire Tanakh (Old Testament) and was fluent in the teachings of the rabbis whose words were recorded in the Mishnah (the earliest portion of the Talmud).
Spirit, wind, or breath?
It isn’t often that a Hebrew word and its Greek counterpart can mean the same three different things. Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma can mean and be translated in one of three ways: (1) spirit, (2) wind, and (3) breath.
Often the context makes clear which English word is preferable, but not always. Like a fielder’s choice in a baseball game, sometimes translators must take their best guess when translating pneuma or ruach.
No matter how translated into English, the association between spirit, wind, and breath is evident in the Scriptures, even when different words are used. When the Spirit came in a unique way on Pentecost, He was accompanied by a “mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2)—the word “wind” here being related to but distinct from pneuma. The association of the Spirit with breath is exemplified in John 20:22: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Once again, a different word for “breathed,” is used, but the association between breath and spirit is maintained.
Jesus says, “The pneuma blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the pneuma.” It is pretty obvious that the first pneuma refers to the wind. The second pneuma we usually translate as “spirit,” but that is open to debate (I side with the translators). We need to remember, however, that in Greek or Hebrew, no word choice needs to be made.
With this background, we are ready to return to the question at hand: Which Old Testament passages should have educated Nicodemus about the nature of the New Birth?
Let me suggest a few, the first of which is Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NIV):
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
This Ezekiel passage is prophetic and addresses the end-time conversion of Israel, speaking about the same time period as Zechariah 13:8-9 and Jeremiah 31:31-37, IMO. In the New Covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34, God’s work of regeneration is described as God writing His Law upon human hearts, and is equated with “knowing the Lord” (see 31:34). Thus we can conclude that “knowing the Lord” is correlated with regeneration (circumcision of the heart).
One central distinction about the New Covenant is its exclusivity: only the regenerate are part of it. This is unlike the Old Covenant, in which both regenerate and unregenerate Jews shared. Jews were born into the Old Covenant; they (and all people) need to be born again to truly know the Lord and enter the relationship of the New Covenant.
In this Ezekiel passage, regeneration results in cleansing, repentance, a “new heart” and “a new spirit.”
That is a great description of the New Birth, and something Nicodemus should have understood.
Is this “new spirit” that God gives us the same as the “Holy Spirit?” What is the relationship between regeneration and obedience?
Next time we continue where we left off. We will also note the similarity between the Testaments when it comes to human responsibility vs. divine sovereignty in the matter of the New Birth, discuss how being born of “water” and “spirit” (or “wind”) is yet another midrash. Stay tuned!
1 The “we” used in Jesus words makes us ask, “Jesus and whom?” The answer can be found within
John’s writings, in this case 1 John 5:7, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” The “water” may refer to the testimony of the Father and descent of the Spirit at Yeshua’s baptism; additionally, the Spirit is mentioned in the context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus; perhaps “we” equals Jesus and the Spirit.
2 Baptismal regeneration, misuse of the “sinner’s prayer,” and other rituals have portrayed regeneration as mechanical, thus under the control of human beings.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at edvasicek.com. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.