Forming Faith Blog

Birth, Breath, and Life (John 3:1-21)

The Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus to learn more about him. But he becomes even more confused as he listens to this Rabbi talk about birth. What do we do when we are questioning or confused?

woman giving birth to baby via c section
Photo by Jonathan Borba on
Revealing Jesus

We are in the season of Epiphany (or the season after Epiphany). Our Scripture lessons, as pretty much all passages in the Gospels, are about revealing who Jesus is. A story I heard several times through Dr. Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary (one of the creators of the Narrative Lectionary) was that the original gospel (good news) was the simple declaration that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The rest of the gospel message (and therefore written Gospels) rose out of that. To understand the significance of the resurrection, you must answer questions:

  1. Who is this Jesus?
  2. What did he do?
  3. How did he die?
  4. Why was he killed?
  5. What makes his life and death so special?

Each Gospel writer takes the basic source material on Jesus and creates a final product specifically for their situation and audience. So, during this time of epiphanies, we learn about Jesus and what makes him special.

The Gospel of John

I have a confession to make: the Gospel of John is my least favorite Gospel. It wasn’t always the case, but at this time in my life, I need a grounded sense of Jesus’ humanity, not the exalted (and abstract) Divine Word. Scripture always has a deeper, richer meaning the more we study it, but the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) usually are pretty easy to understand on a surface level. I can hear (most) passages from these Gospels read aloud and understand what was going on. The narrative parts of John’s Gospel are pretty easy to follow, too. In today’s passage, a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to learn from him. It’s when Jesus opens his mouth that I get lost.

Lofty Theology

I think it’s important to note a few things related to my experience here. First, I have a master’s degree in church history and theology, so—while I’m not ordained—I’m not exactly your standard layperson. Second, listening is not one of my primary learning styles. Third, I tend to overthink things. This third one can get me in all sorts of trouble in my life, so my struggles with hearing John read aloud might relate to my difficulty in aural learning coupled with my desire to really understand what’s going on. But, again, I’m pretty knowledgeable about the Bible, so I have more background than your average person.

Part of what I’m trying to get at here is that a certain (large) percentage of your faith formation participants (worshippers, students, families, etc.) are going to be lost in what Jesus says. So, while you are proclaiming the good news, please make sure to break down what Jesus is saying! This is especially true when the passage can be accurately read in several ways.


When Nicodemus arrives, he greets Jesus with a statement of faith, that he believes Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. This isn’t the full statement Jesus/the Gospel writer wants, but it’s a good start. Jesus responds with what seems like a non sequitur, that to see the kingdom of God, one must be born…from above? Anew? The problem with a translation is that the translator needs to make a choice. Nicodemus is earth-focused, so he only hears “anew.” To be born is to come from your mother’s womb, so being born a second time doesn’t make sense. But, as usual, Jesus is speaking abstractly about spiritual realities. In that case, he is using a metaphor for a type of spiritual change that comes from God (traditionally thought of as “above”). And this spiritual birth would certainly be “anew.” So, the two translations are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.

Jesus tries again, this time stating that no one can enter (much more than “see”) without being born of water and Spirit. The “water” has its own interpretive path, but Jesus continues on with the idea of the Spirit.


We now come to another double meaning. In both Hebrew and Greek (the original languages of the Bible), the word for spirit/Spirit is the same as breath and wind. So, you can translate verse 6b as: “what is born of the breath is breath” or “what is born of the wind is wind.” While those don’t really make sense, they provide a more direct connection to verse 8. That itself can be translated: “The Spirit blows where it chooses…So it is with everyone who is born of the wind” or “The breath blows where it chooses…” Now, I don’t think the NRSV translation is wrong, in fact, it’s what makes the most sense. But the repetition that is present in the Greek is lost in the English. Jesus’ statement about the invisibility but powerfulness of the wind perhaps is not even a metaphor. Even “you hear the sound of it” can be translated as “you hear the voice of it.”


This leads us to a common phrase in the Gospel of John, and it is loaded with meaning and interpretations: eternal life (zōēn aiōnion). The word for life here (zōē) is different than the days of our lives (bios). [There’s also psuche/psyche as life, but that’s a complicated idea I don’t want to get into here.] So, “life” here is not just about our physical life extended. And the word translated “eternal” here (aiōnios) is not so much “never-ending” as “of the age.” Which age? Clearly not the one we are living in. No, it’s the “age to come,” similar to what the other Gospels (and vv. 3 and 5 here) call “the kingdom of God.” So, Jesus isn’t so much talking about making our physical lives never-ending, but us participating in the special kind of life from the kingdom of God. Yes, this “eternal life” doesn’t end, but it also doesn’t start when we die. This life breaks in here and now, just like the kingdom of God.

The Value of Questioning

It seems that Nicodemus doesn’t come off well here. When he is confused by the abstract things that Jesus is saying, Jesus doesn’t seem to treat him nicely. “How can you be a teacher and not know this?” But Jesus also didn’t scare him off. Nicodemus shows up two other times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 7, the religious authorities (which he is one of) want to arrest Jesus, but Nicodemus objects, basically demanding a fair trial. Not exactly a bold statement of faith, but better than nothing. The third and final time our Pharisee shows up is at the time of Jesus’ burial. Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus properly. Both were secret disciples for fear of the Jewish authorities. But they stepped out at this point, even when all seemed lost.

Questioning, uncertainty, and wrestling are not against faith, but essential parts of it. As you tackle this text in your faith formation time, emphasize this with your participants. Teach them that you don’t have to question anything to be a follower of Jesus, but questioning things doesn’t make you any less of a follower either. Be authentic about what you do not understand or struggle with. An uncertain faith is better than no faith at all, and it’s even better (in my opinion) than an unquestioning one.

May you and your participants wrestle with Scripture now and until the end of the age.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: Sept 12 to June 5), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download a free activity “Collage of Confusion” from our youth curriculum Living the Word: Youth (NL) designed to be used in middle or high school faith formation!

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