Spirit since birth? A sermon based on John 20:19-23
Today we are beginning a new series called Spirit-Breath. The goal is to understand on a deeper level the way God’s Spirit moves within us. The goal is not only to understand, but to begin to practice stepping out to experience the Spirit in new ways. We’ll be exploring this some in the 9:15 class, but we also hope to have times outside of Sunday morning, through unstructured times of prayer and worship.
(Slide 2). First, a note about the word “spirit.” In the Old Testament, the word for spirit can also mean wind and breath, but most of the time Ruach refers to God’s Spirit or a human’s spirit… In English we don’t have a single word like that so we have to use different words to translate ruah or pneuma. Take for example Ezekiel 37, the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel uses the word ruach again and again, but in English the translation sometimes reads breath, sometimes wind, sometimes human spirit, and sometimes God’s Spirit. The Greek word, pneuma, has the same range of meanings. This will be important for us to keep in mind for reasons that we’ll see in a little bit.
I’d like to start with the series off with this question: can the Old Testament teach us anything about the Spirit? For most of us, its obvious that the New Testament has much to say about how we can expect the Spirit to work in our lives. Its not as obvious that the Old Testament has something to teach us about how the Spirit works in our lives. After all, doesn’t the New Testament say that the Spirit wasn’t given to people until after Jesus died and rose from the dead?
That question was put to me on the Wildlife Mountaineering Trip last August. The first day of the trip our group was exploring the Old Testament concept that every human receives God’s Spirit when they are first born. There are a number passages in the Hebrew Bible which teach that God’s ruah, or spirit, permanently lives in all creatures, and that death results when God take his ruach away. An obvious example is Psalm 104:27-30. (Slide 3) “When you hid your face they are dismayed; when you take away their ruach, they die and return to dust. When you send forth your ruach, they are created.” In this passage you can see that there is a very close association between the a person’s ruach, and God’s ruach. Only if God’s ruach, or spirit, is present, can there be life. Otherwise, there is death. I was drawing on this passage on the Wildlife Trip, explaining that God’s Spirit dwelling within us is the only reason why anyone is able to be alive. With that someone asked, “but doesn’t the New Testament teach us that no one received God’s Spirit before Pentecost? So how can it be that everyone already has God’s Spirit within them?” At the time, my best answer was. “I don’t know.’ The person who asked that question was referring to the passage we looked at 3 weeks ago in John 7, which says (Slide 4) “Now Jesus said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Here John says pretty clearly that God’s Spirit was not given until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s a curious passage. If that’s true, what do you do with all the references in the Old Testament referring to people already having God’s ruach within them? People like, for starters, Joseph, and Job, and Daniel, and Moses, and Bezalel, and Oholiab. The Bible says that all of them have a great portion of God’s Spirit. You may remember that after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh said, “Can we find anyone else like this—one in whom is the spirit of God?” Not only that, but in the Old Testament people seem to always have had God’s ruach, from the moment they come alive. (Slide 5). Listen, again, to Genesis 2:7. “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the ruach of life; and the man became a living being.” This is the picture that started it all. What makes human life possible is the kiss of life in which God imparts his Spirit-breath. Humans can either ignored this gift to their own peril, or cultivated the spirit-breath within them and grew in virtue, learning, and spiritual practices. That’s why the lives of Joseph and Daniel are so powerful. These are men who nurtured God’s ruach since birth.
So, what do we do with that passage in John which says, “the spirit (pneuma) had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified? Why does the Old Testament teach that we have God’s ruach from birth, and depend on God’s ruach to live? Why does the New Testament teach that you only receive God’s Spirit after believing in the risen Jesus? To help us find the answer we’ll need to look at John chapter 3, where Jesus’ has a conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus one night. Notice what Jesus says to Nicodemus. (slide 6) First, Jesus says that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born from above. Notice the language of birth. Nicodemas then famously asks if a person will have to climb back into their mother’s womb. To those who say that there are no stupid questions I refer them to Nicodemas. But Jesus goes on to say: (Slide 7) “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the pneuma is pneuma.” Remember, the Greek word Pneuma has the same meaning as the Hebrew word Ruach: it can mean wind, breath, God’s Spirit, or the human spirit. Notice the birth language throughout this passage. Spirit gives birth to spirit. The Spirit a person receives from birth, must be born again. Even if the pneuma, or spirit we received at birth is from God, there must be rebirth. Jesus goes on to say: (Slide 8) “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The pneuma (wind) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the pneuma (spirit).” In this conversation, Jesus is signalling a huge shift in perspective on the spirit. Its not that the Old Testament concept of the spirit giving life to all humans is no longer happening. Its not that God suddenly removed his spirit from everyone who doesn’t know Jesus. That would result in the death of every creature on the planet. Instead, Jesus is saying that there needs to be new birth. When we are a baby, God breathes spirit into us and are able to live. But spirit gives birth to spirit. The spirit we have from birth needs rebirth. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!” This is just a different way of saying that a person needs to be born again. This new birth of spirit doesn’t replace the spirit we’ve had from birth. Instead, God’s Spirt grows, enlarges and renews within us, and we become a new creation. When we believe in Christ, we are made new, he has renewed His Spirit within us. We are born again and enter the Kingdom of God.
Now we’ve come to the place where we can more fully understand Jesus’ words and actions in John 20. They are the fulfillment of His conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus breathes Spirit into his disciples and they are born again. Imagine this, Jesus is improving on God’s action in Genesis 2, where God breathes into Adam. In Genesis 2 God breathes His ruach into Adam and Adam becomes alive. In this passage, Jesus does the exact same for His disciples and they are born again. (Slide 9). And he breathed into them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Translations soften this picture by saying Jesus “breathed on” the disciples, as if Jesus just blew on His disciples form the safety of a couple feet away. But the word used here, breathed into, is the exact same word used in the Greek version of Genesis 2 where God breathes his ruach into Adam’s nostrils. I’m alarmed by the intimacy of this picture. Jesus literally breathes into the disciples, reenacting God’s first breath into Adam. Jesus literally breathes into the disciples, fulfilling his words to Nicodemas, spirit gives birth to spirit, and the disciples are born again.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, and his breathing spirit into the disciples show us how the Old and New Testament understanding of the Spirit fit together. There is only one Spirit. This means we can learn from the Old Testament about the Holy Spirit. We can look at the ways God’s Spirit interacts with characters like Joseph, and Job, and Daniel, and Moses, and Bezalel, and Oholab, and we can anticipate that because we have the same Spirit, God’s Spirit will work similarly in us. We can look at the ways these Old Testament people grew in the spirit and we can copy them. When we do so, we can expect to grow in Spirit just as they did. But the New Testament also teaches that Spirit gives birth to spirit. Followers of Jesus have been born again. Through faith in the resurrected Jesus, our capacity for Spirit grows so that we are called a New Creation. This empowers Christians to live out Jesus’ call on there lives. (Slide 10) Right before Jesus breathes the Spirit into His discples, Jesus says, ““Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
This is the mission the disciples receive when they are born again. The disciples are charged with continuing the work of Jesus. The disciples are made into a new creation, so they are equipped to offer to the world the life which Jesus offers. The work that Jesus did on earth, the disciples are now charged and empowered to do. That is the result of being born of the Spirit. This is certainly why Jesus says at the end of this passage, (Slide 11) “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Followers of Jesus are to announce the message of forgiveness. In doing so, we are holding out the possibility for all who hear to be born of Spirit and to receive new life. (Slide 12)
The Spirit that believers have within is in direct line with the spirit-breath God first breathed into Adam. The Spirit that believers have within, we share with all others made in the image of God. The Spirit believers have within, we share with all the godly men and women of the past who grew powerfully in spirit. We can learn from people like Joseph and Daniel in how to grow in the Spirit. But we have been given so much more than them. The Spirit Jesus breathes into us has made us into a new creation, charging us with a task of continuing, and implementing the work which Jesus began when He was on earth. We are His hands and feet, and perhaps more importantly, we are his lungs. We have his breath within us. We learn from Jesus how to breathe.