What’s it like to be “born of the Spirit”?

I got my first real whiff of what being “born again” is like when our 6 year old granddaughter came to stay with us for a week. She was ecstatically happy to be with us, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out why. I’m a doddery old codger now and not much fun to be with, and I can’t run around like I used to. I’m risking injury just walking fast.

When she came to stay, therefore, I wondered what on earth we could do together to keep her occupied. She had the energy of three nuclear power stations, while I tottered in her wake on worn out batteries. Would she be so bored by Day 2 that she’d be crying for home?

By Day 6, however, she was still happy. She scampered down the front path each morning as happily as she did on Day 1. To her, it didn’t matter where we were going either, because wherever Granpy was going was just fine with her. And if all Granpy could manage was a trip to the Library where he collapsed in exhaustion with a newspaper, it was still fine, because for her being together was enough.

Her trust and contentment in whatever we did together was a joy – and a revelation, too, because this was John 3. In that chapter, Jesus is telling Nicodemus what being born again is like, and comes up with this remarkable explanation in verse 8: “The wind blows wherever 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.”

When I’m born of the Spirit I have no idea where the Spirit’s taking me, just like my granddaughter had no idea where I was taking her each day. It was no problem for her, though. Granpy knew where he was going, and that’s all that mattered. She could scamper into each day in total trust and contentment. And that’s what it’s like being born of the Spirit. The Spirit knows where he’s going, so what else matters? And every morning it’s the same. Out we go together, the Spirit and I, just like I did with my granddaughter.

And Jesus said it would be like this in John 14:16-18, too. The Spirit would live with us and be with us forever. Every moment of every day, then, we’d have a Spirit guide. Where he’s going, we do not know, but he knows – and for my granddaughter with me as her guide – that was all that mattered.

Is the Holy Spirit a person or a power?

Whether person or power, the Holy Spirit is named separately from the Father and the Son. But it’s in relationship with the Father and Son that we discover who or what the Holy Spirit is – as we see in Acts 16:7, for instance, where the Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of Jesus.”

That’s because Jesus’ entire life was intimately related to the Spirit. He was conceived by the Spirit, identified by the Spirit at his baptism, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and in his first public address Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” Luke 4:18. Jesus identified the Spirit as being in close, intimate relationship with him.

The Spirit is also called “the Spirit of your Father,” Matthew 10:20, so the Spirit is intimately related to the Father too. In John 14:26 the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name, so in trying to discover who or what the Holy Spirit is, Scripture clearly identifies the Spirit in intimate relationship with both Father and Son.

And just as Jesus never said or did anything on his own authority (John 12:49-50), the Spirit does “not speak on his own (authority)” either, John 16:13. What we see in Scripture, then, is the Father, Son and Spirit operating in total harmony together. It’s a wonderful window into who and what God is. God is a communion of love, an intimate relationship, as we see again in the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, because Jesus’ great goal in his life, death, resurrection and ascension was to have the Holy Spirit given to us (John 14:16, 16:13, Acts 1:8, 2:38). But it’s the Spirit’s great purpose to bring us into union with Christ (Ephesians 3:16-17, 1 John 4:13).

So we’ve got Christ’s great desire being to unite us to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s great desire to unite us to Christ. In the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, then, we have the same window into God, and again it’s all about God being an intimate relationship of love, which then extends to loving us too.

We don’t see God primarily as either persons or powers, therefore. Instead, we see God as a relationship always operating in total harmony. And the Holy Spirit is identified as being part of that relationship, operating in exactly the same way as the Father and Son do, in close, intimate relationship together. When thinking of the Holy Spirit, then, it’s in relationship with the Father and Son, operating in total harmony together on our behalf. That’s the focus in Scripture, not on whether the Holy Spirit is a separate person or a power.

Did a virgin really give birth to Jesus?

But why couldn’t Jesus be born from a virgin mother? Look up the word “God” in the Dictionary and one definition given is “having no limits or boundaries.” God, therefore, can do what he jolly well pleases, so having a virgin give birth to Jesus was a walk in the park for him.

Predicting Jesus’ virgin birth hundreds of years before it happened was a walk in the park too. But let’s face it, we weren’t there when Isaiah predicted it, nor did we witness Jesus’ birth personally, so how do we know the virgin birth (and the prophecy of it) really happened? On the other hand, if Jesus’ unique birth did happen as Scripture says it did, and God really was Jesus’ Father and Jesus truly was both human and divine, the impact of such a being on this planet must have been huge, right?

And it has been huge. Billions of people have put their trust in Jesus in the centuries since his birth. But was it his miraculous virgin birth that captured their trust? No. It was their own miraculous birth. Suddenly, new and completely different things started happening to them. God, for instance, became a loving Father to them (not a distant ogre), Jesus became a personal source of strength for them, and they found themselves becoming much better people with great results in their relationships with other people. It was like a new birth.

And what had they done personally toward this new birth? Nothing. It came out of the blue, like some other power had suddenly conceived it in them. But that’s exactly what scripture said would happen to people because of Jesus’ birth – and in scriptures written many years before Jesus was born too, as in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:25-27. Miraculous changes would happen in human hearts those scriptures said.

And why would these changes happen? Because of the Holy Spirit   –  ah  –  the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that conceived Jesus. Is it any surprise, then, that Jesus had a unique virgin birth created by the Holy Spirit when that same Spirit is creating new births in people all the time? Conceiving new births is what the Spirit does. New birth, miraculously conceived by God, is his speciality. It’s a walk in the park for him.

Is the virgin birth so strange, then? Not when the Spirit is constantly giving birth to new creatures who are being “conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” Romans 8:29. Jesus, therefore, was simply the first miraculous birth by the Holy Spirit – to be followed by millions and millions more.

Experiencing death before we die

It’s an odd thing being a Christian because we experience death before we die. That’s probably why Christians aren’t phased much by dying, because, as Paul said, we die daily, so we’re old hands at death long before our physical bodies die.

We die in the same way we die physically too. When we die physically the vital systems in our bodies that kept us alive start shutting down. It’s like turning off the lights in a large room. As each switch is clicked off, the room slowly darkens, until one final click and the lights go out entirely.

And isn’t that what happens in our Christian lives too? Jesus’ death provided us with the switch to turn the power of sin off, and the Spirit now turns the lights out one by one. The systems that kept us alive before, therefore, like ambition, competition, making a name for ourselves, being popular and liked, self-preservation and security, start shutting down. The room they occupied in our heads slowly darkens until the lights make a last fizz and splutter, and die.

It’s quite something when an old attitude that animated our lives before makes its last splutter and dies, like the attitude of being critical and condemning. For much of our lives, putting others down really got the blood flowing. It made us feel good and alive, and it gave our sagging ego a boost when others made glaring mistakes and we could laugh and scoff at their expense.

But the Spirit’s at the switch gradually shutting that kind of nonsense down, until one day it’s of no interest to us anymore. We don’t need to condemn and judge others to feel better about ourselves. It doesn’t have the same appeal. It becomes a horrible thing we don’t want hanging around in our heads anymore. Get rid of it. Turn it off. And turn it off we do, daily.

And what about those other attitudes that lit up our emotions before, like getting all hoity-toity if someone cuts us off in traffic, or a well-known gossip says things behind our backs that aren’t quite true, or our great knowledge on a subject is exposed as faulty by a snotty know-it-all?

Those things probably squirted all sorts of highly inflammable fuels into our systems before, stirring up fiery anger and heated replies. But the Spirit has been let loose on us now, and he’s at the switch turning that stuff off until it’s dead, and it stays dead, daily. As Christians, then, we experience death many times before we die, as the lights go out on what made us feel alive before.

Can we live a perfect life?

Christ redeemed us from “trying to attain our goal by human effort,” Galatians 3:3, because we can’t attain our goal by human effort. It’s a huge, humbling, and even rather embarrassing lesson, that every human eventually comes to learn, that God didn’t create us with the ability to make our lives perfect.

The only way a human being, relying on his own strength, can make his life work out perfectly both now and forever, is to obey every law governing his success absolutely perfectly. But the story of Israel proves we can’t do it. Even if God was with us like he was with them, blessing us at every turn and offering us paradise on earth if we obey him, we still couldn’t do it. That’s why the story of Israel was written: They didn’t have it in them to do what was needed, and nor do we.

It’s a terrible curse hanging over our heads, therefore, if we’re depending on our own strength alone. We may have the best of intentions, just like the Israelites, or like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, but the flesh is weak. So Christ came to remove that curse. How? By becoming that curse for us (verse 13). He took the “depending on our own strength” curse and nailed it to the cross. No longer, then, would we ever have to think our eternity depends on anything we do, like obeying all Ten Commandments perfectly, or acting all pious and religious.

Instead, Galatians 3:11, the righteous would live by faith. Faith in what, though? The answer to that is in verse 14: “He (Christ) redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”

It’s faith in the promise of the Spirit. It would dawn on us that thousands of years ago God made a promise to Abraham, that one day the help we’d need to enter eternity with God would be given to us. The Spirit would work the miracles in our lives that we couldn’t work in our lives ourselves. And that’s what Christ’s death released to us. He took that old self of ours, totally dependent on human strength, nailed it to the cross, and opened up the promise he made to Abraham of the Spirit doing for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

We could then begin a new life of dependence on the Spirit, like the Galatians did – to begin with. Unfortunately they reverted back to “trying to attain their goal by human effort,” which stirred Paul to write Galatians 3, for their sake, and for ours.

What an odd question: “Have you received the Holy Spirit?”

Paul arrives in Ephesus in Acts 19:1 and discovers a little pocket of John the Baptist’s followers. At some point in his conversation with them he asks in verse 2, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when (or after) you believed?”

To our ears that could seem like an odd question, because believers are supposed to automatically receive the Holy Spirit according to Ephesians 1:13. The process is the same for everyone: First of all, “you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” and then, “Having believed, you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”  It’s a three step process: Hear the gospel, believe the gospel, receive the Holy Spirit.

That little pocket of disciples in Ephesus, however, hadn’t “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” Acts 19:2. And that raised another question in Paul’s mind in verse 3: “Then what baptism did you receive?”

Again, to our ears that might seem like an odd question as well, because what other baptism could there be? To a Jew in Paul’s day, however, there were now two baptisms: There was baptism with water, and baptism with the Holy Spirit, John 1:33. John the Baptist was sent by God to baptize the Jews with water, and Jesus was sent by God to baptize them with the Spirit. First the water baptism by John, followed by the Spirit baptism by Jesus.

The only baptism the disciples in Ephesus had received, however, was “John’s baptism” with water, Acts 19:3. That was good, of course, because God had sent John the Baptist to baptize his fellow Jews with water as a necessary first step, but John had also made it clear in Matthew 3:11 that “after me will come one who is more powerful than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” For the Jews of that time, therefore, there was another baptism to come.

So, when Paul discovered the disciples in Ephesus had only received “John’s baptism of repentance” in Acts 19:4, he reminded them of what John himself had said about “believing in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” In John’s own words his baptism with water to repentance was only a first step to the baptism that Jesus would do. And when the disciples in Ephesus realized that, “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verse 5, and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 6.

And that was the baptism Paul was interested in, their baptism with the Holy Spirit, because that was what “marked” and “sealed” them “in Christ,” Ephesians 1:13, “guaranteeing their inheritance,” verse 14. When he asked, therefore, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” it’s not such an odd question, is it?

How easy it can be “to blaspheme against the Spirit”

To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Spirit at work. Jesus, for instance, was casting out demons “by the Spirit of God,” Matthew 12:28, but the Pharisees claimed he was doing it by the power of the devil. How ridiculous, because why would the devil spite his own nose by decreasing his influence in people’s heads? Well, of course he wouldn’t do that. But if it wasn’t the devil casting out demons, there was only one other power capable of doing it – God.

But the Pharisees ignored the obvious. Like a teenager who seeks to justify contempt for his parents by accusing them of not caring when he knows full well they do care, the Pharisees also came up with outrageous accusations to bring contempt on Jesus, so long as it made Jesus look bad. And that’s what counted to them – NOT the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, but rather the chance to score points against Jesus to destroy his influence.

It’s like justifying contempt for other Christians today. Yes, other Christians have problems, they’re not perfect. Some denominations are making glaring mistakes. But they’re also doing a lot of good. They feed the poor, provide shelter, clothing, money, medication, encouragement, comfort, emergency help in disasters, education for struggling families, and they’re willing to go to the worst places on earth to help people. Their doctrines may be completely out to lunch, their churches cold and unfriendly, their manner a bit aggressive or over the top, and their emphasis on hell a bit too steep, but there’s no denying that wherever imperfect Christians are there is a lot of good being done as well.

When Jesus said in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed,” the evidence was overwhelming that what he said was true, because wherever he went people were relieved of demons and dreadful diseases. And all done, Jesus said, by the Holy Spirit.

We have clear evidence, therefore, of how the Spirit works. Wherever good is being done and evil is being suppressed, that’s the Holy Spirit at work. To ignore that evidence is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit. And to seek to score points against other Christians by focusing on their faults is to bring contempt on the Holy Spirit. That’s how easy it can be to blaspheme against the Spirit. As easy as it was for the Pharisees.