Friday, December 21, 2012

The Identity of the “We” Who Speak and Testify in John 3:11

In John 3:11 Jesus is reported as saying to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have beheld, yet you do not receive our testimony.” The main question in this verse is: to whom do the pronouns we and our refer?

The options suggested are that the pronouns we and our refer either to Jesus and his disciples, to the Trinity, to Jesus via a plural of majesty, or to Jesus and the Old Testament prophets (including John the Baptist).

Out of all of these options, it makes more sense in the context to take the pronouns we and our as referring to Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. Jesus links the concepts of speaking and testifying with knowing and beholding or seeing. In Jewish thinking, it is supremely the prophets who pass on what has been revealed to them. The prophets were people who heard or saw the mysteries of God, and passed such truths on to God’s people. The fact that John the Baptist has previously appeared speaking and testifying (see John 1:6–9, 19, 29–33, especially 1:34) helps to confirm this linkage.

The pronoun you in the final clause of this verse is in the plural. This pronoun refers, therefore, not just to Nicodemus, but to the Jewish leadership viewed as a whole. Overall, the meaning of this verse is that the Jewish people viewed as a whole did not receive the testimony of the prophets. The rejection of the prophetic word by old covenant Israel was a problem that Israel had experienced throughout her history, but it reached its climax with the Jewish rejection of the testimony of Jesus the Messiah.

Monday, December 10, 2012

“The Wind Blows Where It Wills”: The Meaning of Jesus’ Teaching in John 3:8

What did Jesus mean when he said: “The wind blows where it wills. You hear its sound, but do not know where it is coming from and where it is going. Thus is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8)?

To understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in this verse, we need first of all to recognize that there is a play on the double sense of the noun πνεῦμα in this verse. πνεῦμα can be translated as wind or spirit. John is deliberately playing on the dual sense of πνεῦμα as wind or spirit, drawing an analogy between the wind and the Holy Spirit. Wind is considered in the Bible to be a phenomenon that, like the waves of the sea, is beyond the control of human beings (e.g., Job 38:24; Ps 107:25; Prov 30:4). Just as the wind blows wherever God wills, so also God’s Spirit blows wherever God wills. That is to say, God’s Spirit works in a sovereign way.

Just as people cannot see the wind but can hear the sound of the wind blowing, so also the Spirit of God cannot physically be seen with human eyes but we can perceive his effects on the objects which he touches. The concept of the sound of the wind as an image of the movement of the Spirit finds an echo in the events of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, when the sound of a mighty rushing wind from heaven was heard as the Spirit came down upon the early church (Acts 2:2). The movement of God’s Spirit cannot be predicted or controlled by human beings, but we can perceive his effects as people’s lives are transformed by the power of God’s Spirit.

The point of Jesus’ analogy between the wind and the Spirit is stated in the final clause of the verse: “Thus is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The point of the wind/spirit analogy is that the beneficiaries of rebirth by the Holy Spirit are not determined by human beings. In the context of the concern on the Gospel of John with the ethnically universal nature of salvation provided through Jesus, and given that Jesus was currently directing this teaching to Nicodemus, a representative of the teachers of Israel (John 3:9–10), the implication of Jesus’ analogy in this verse is that it is not right for Jews to think that the saving work of the Spirit is solely limited to Israel.

Although covenant membership is inherited according to physical descent—a principle which applies under the new covenant as well as the old (Acts 2:39; 1 Cor 7:14)—the work of the Spirit during the new covenant age exhibits a greater scope compared to the situation under the old covenant. Under the old covenant, the work of God’s Spirit was limited to operate primarily within the boundary of covenant membership in Israel. But under the new covenant, God’s Spirit operates not just within Israel, but extensively beyond the borders of Israel. Furthermore, even within the constraint of covenant membership, it is not the case that everyone in covenant with God is a recipient of the saving work of the Spirit. The determining factor for salvation under both the old and the new covenants is not formal covenant membership but whether or not a person has experienced the work of God’s Spirit writing God’s word upon one’s heart. Those who have God’s law written in the heart are those who are right with God and who therefore experience salvation (e.g., Ps 37:29; Isa 51:7; Rom 2:28–29).

Regeneration by the Spirit, therefore, remains a sovereign act of God. God has mercy on whomever he wills, the implication being, that he has mercy on “everyone,” which is to say, on Gentile as well as Jew. This is the sense in which the Spirit blows where he wills.