With yesterday’s discussion of “spirit” in mind we can go back to the Old Testament and find some interesting things. For example, at the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In English the choice of words does not mean a whole lot. We think perhaps of the Holy Spirit as a dove somehow skimming over the waters that were covering the earth at that time. But that is not the idea at all. Rather the Holy Spirit of God is portrayed as God’s breath—as the creative, moving, dynamic breath of God. This breath—this divine, life-giving wind—is what is blowing across the waters at the beginning.
One chapter later we have the story of the creation of Adam from the dust of the ground.1 There we read, “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). This is very significant. It indicates that apart from the breath of God, man was just dead matter. He was as dead as dust. In order for him to have life, God, who is the source of life, had to breathe some of His life, some of the divine breath or spirit into Adam. Only then did Adam become a living being.
In the New Testament, in the third chapter of John, the Lord Jesus Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about the new birth, and He picks up on this idea. He tells Nicodemus not merely that a person needs to be regenerated in some mystical way in order to have eternal life and be saved, but that he or she needs to be “born again” (John 3:3, 7), using a word for “again” that actually means: 1) “again, just like the first time,” and 2) “from above.” That is, Jesus said that a person needs to be “born again from above just like the first time.”
What was Jesus getting at? Nicodemus did not know. He hadn’t the faintest idea. He said, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born!” (v. 4). But Jesus explained, saying, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (vv. 5-8).
Nicodemus did not understand this. But we can, if we put these things together. Think what is said of the creation of Adam at the beginning of Genesis. God breathed into Adam so that he became a living being. His Spirit (which, we remember, means “breath” or “wind”) was the vehicle. Now we find Jesus saying that the new life that all people need, needs to be breathed into them in a way analogous to God’s creation of Adam. Just as, at the beginning, God breathed into Adam so that he became a living physical being, so also in our day: if a person is to be saved, God must breathe into him or her by His Holy Spirit “once again from above, just like the first time,” in order that the person might become spiritually alive. We may be physically alive without the new birth, but if we are to become spiritually alive God must breathe His Spirit into us.
This is why Jesus introduced the image of wind into His discussion with Nicodemus. It was not an extraneous idea, as it seems to us, but a vivid way of talking about the Spirit’s work, which even Nicodemus must have recognized.
Here is one more text: Isaiah 2:22. “Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?” Think of that in terms of this imagery. On the surface it sounds sort of foolish to say, “Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils?” Why talk about breath or nostrils? It even seems a bit grotesque. But it is not when you think along these lines. Isaiah is saying that man is only a “one breath” person. He breathes in. He breathes out. If he stops breathing even for a few minutes, he dies. So, says Isaiah, “Why pay so much attention to him? Stop trusting in man. Trust God.” Why are we to trust in God? Because, to use this same imagery, God’s breath is not in His nostrils. He is not a one breath being. God does not live by breathing in and breathing out. God is one great and eternal breath. He is the source of all breath, the source of life. So what Isaiah is saying is that it is wise to trust God to give you the breath you need to live spiritually and carry on to the very end.
1There is also a story of the creation of man in chapter 1, but there the emphasis is different. It is upon man being made in the image of God. This is stressed by being repeated three times over. In chapter 2 the emphasis is upon man being created from the dust of the earth.