John 3:8-12 — The Breath of Life (Nicodemus, part 3) — LeGrand Baker.

Hugh Nibley once said that a translation is really a commentary. The next verse in the Savior’s conversation with Nicodemus is a perfect example of that. As it is translated, it makes no more sense than Nicodemus’s question about how a man can be born again. The translators of the King James Bible did the best they could (and what they did is truly beautiful), but they did not know the ancient Israelite temple code and clearly had no idea what was going on here. They believed Nicodemus was simply dumbfounded by the Savior’s answer, so they have Jesus saying something to him that reflects their attitude.

8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

I suspect almost every missionary of the LDS Church has explained to their new investigators the same thing that Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus. “The feeling you are experiencing is the Holy Ghost. If you will learn to listen to it, it will teach you wonderful things.” That is what the Savior is saying to Nicodemus.

8 The wind [Strong # 4151] bloweth [Strong # 4154, to breathe, to blow] where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit [Strong # 4151] (John 3:8).

The word translated as “wind,” and the word translated as “Spirit” is the same Greek word (Strong # 4151). It means,

A current of air, i.e. breath or a breeze;
the spirit, i.e. the vital principal by which the body is animated;
the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides
the soul {1}

That same Greek word is translated as “Holy Ghost” in 89 places in the New Testament. There is no good reason why “the Holy Ghost” would not be appropriate in our verse. In which case it might read, “The Holy Ghost bloweth where it listeth.”

The Greek word translated as “blow” (Strong # 4154) might also have been translated as “breath.” In ancient texts we find the belief that giving breath is sycomorus with giving life. Hugh Nibley frequently stressed that throughout his book on the Egyptian endowment. In its first chapter he wrote,

For the Egyptians, the giving of breath is endowment with life in the widest sense. {2}

That idea is also found in the Bible where Elihu reminded Job,

4 The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life (Job 33:4).

The creation stories in the scriptures echo that same principle.

7 And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Moses 3:7 & Genesis 2:7)

7 And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, the man’s spirit), and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul (Abraham 5:7).

Perhaps a correct way of understanding what the Savior said to Nicodemus is this: “The Holy Ghost gives the breath of new life to whomever he will.” That would be a nice parallel with what follows, “so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus was a great scholar, but the Savior’s explanation was likely as foreign to him as that same explanation from our missionaries is foreign to their new investigators. Like them, it seems that Nicodemus was experiencing something he had never felt before, or at least that he had never identified, and Jesus is simply explaining what that feeling is. Nicodemus response is entirely in line with his amazement.

9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? (John 3:9-10)

Jesus is not making fun of Nicodemus (as many interpretations suggest), but is acknowledging that he is a renowned teacher. The word “master” here is the same Greek word as “teacher” in verse 2. {3}

If Jesus were chiding, then his words mock Nicodemus’s scholarship. But that does not fit the rest of the situation. If Jesus were smiling (as I believe he was), then his words would have meant: “Lets look into the depth of your knowledge so I can show you the meaning of what you already know.”

That is also consistent with the rest of the conversation, for where he then takes Nicodemus’s mind insists that both were happy.

When John introduced this story to us he wrote,

24 But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men,
25 And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man (John 2:24 – 25)

Now, John is going to show us how Jesus unreservedly “committed” himself to Nicodemus. He opens his own soul to him. During this conversation we find the most comprehensive single statement (that I am aware of) in all the scriptures about who and what Jesus really is.

However, before Jesus does that, knowing that Nicodemus’s first impulse will be to help others also understand, Jesus explains that it will not do any good to try to teach those who do not want to know. He tells the Jewish scholar that he must not share what he is about to learn. The principle is the same as was taught by Alma.

9 And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.
10 And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.
11 And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell (Alma 12:9-11).

Jesus says essentially the same thing to Nicodemus.

11Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3:11-12)

In these two sentences, the words “you” and “ye” are plural. They are roughly equivalent to the Southern “y’all.” {4} Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. When Jesus says “y’all believe not,” he is not talking about Nicodemus personally, but is warning him that most of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders do not then, and will not ever, believe what he tells them.

11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye [y’all] receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you [y’all] earthly things, and ye [y’all] believe not, how shall ye [y’all] believe, if I tell you [y’all] of heavenly things? (John 3:11-12)

In the Inspired Version of the Bible, Joseph Smith helps us understand that. To the beginning of the next verse he adds the words, “I tell you,” which I take to mean, “I am telling only you, and therefore you are not to tell those Pharisees because they will not believe.”

What he then tells him must have been both amazing and wonderful to Nicodemus. I am convinced that the next lines would never have been spoken by Jesus to anyone whom he did not completely trust.

(Continued)
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FOOTNOTES

{1} This definition uses words from two different editions of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance off the Bible.

{2} Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975), 8.

{3} “The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher [ # 1320 – teacher] come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him (John 3:1-2).” “Jesus answered and said unto h im, Art thou a master [ # 1320 teacher] of Israel, and knowest not these things? (John 3:9-10).”

{4} Strong’s # 5213 “ irregular dative case of # 5210; to (with or by) you:—ye, you, your(-selves).”
Strong’s # 5210 – “irregular plural of # 4771; you (as subjective of verb):—ye (yourselves), you.”

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