Of the many encounters that Jesus Christ has with people that we read in the Bible, one of the more interesting is the one he has with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council of the day. This man, unlike many of his kind, is positive towards Jesus, yet he finds himself quite bamboozled by what Jesus says to him. Straight off, he’s told, “unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus’ response was, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Notice he makes this statement with exclamation. Now, we are very familiar with this term “born again” (which, of course, has it’s origin in this very story), and the figurative nature in which it is normally used. But to Nicodemus, it was simply incomprehensible. This was because he was utterly literal minded in the way he thought. Swedenborg tells us that the Jews of that time were entirely external in their thinking. Their religious observance had to do exclusively with outward things. As long as they kept to the letter the numerous rules that God gave them in his Word, they believed He would be entirely satisfied with them.
When Jesus went on to explain that the birth he was talking about was one of “water and the Spirit,” and not the natural one of the flesh, Nicodemus was still uncomprehending. It had never occurred to him that an inward change was necessary, if he was truly going to please God and enter heaven; that ultimately things within him had to be put in order. He thought, since he fulfilled the religious law, as the Jews regarded it to be, there was nothing more he believed God expected of him.
Through Swedenborg, we know that human beings are born with their lower nature dominant in their lives (“Flesh gives birth to flesh,” Jesus told Nicodemus), and as they develop they have the chance to choose that their higher nature take over that dominant position. In effect, we have to look inside and see the need and feel the desire to become a less self-regarding and less selfish person. Once we do this, we compel ourselves to think, speak and act accordingly. This is the birth regarding water that Jesus mentioned. Water purifies us outwardly, and baptism with water was what the people who responded to the message of Jesus and the John the Baptist underwent when they saw and felt the need to turn away from their sins. It symbolised their outer actions being cleaned up, as it were.
Swedenborg explains that this repentance and outward reformation of our outer life is essential, but it is only the beginning. The birth regarding the Spirit that Jesus mentions begins when we are tempted to reject our new, purer way of life. If, with God’s help, we can come through this baptism of fire, we will then be such that the Holy Spirit can find a home in our hearts. We have then undergone regeneration, perhaps for the first of many times in this life as we confront deeper and deeper personal shortcomings. Because we now love to do God’s will, and not just feel we should be doing it.
Having told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again in this way, Jesus then said something that must not only further confused him but has also baffled many who have heard it ever since:
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the spirit.”
Heaven knows what Nicodemus made of those statements, but we on the other hand are lucky enough to be able to see beyond their cryptic imagery to gain an understanding of life with the Holy Spirit in our hearts. For when this is the case, we relate to life fundamentally differently from how we did before ever experiencing regeneration. Beforehand, we were led by our own intelligence, from the sense of our own wisdom. We used the natural level of our minds in attempting to work out how best to obtain our own happiness in life. The ideas we naturally use in an ignoble effort to obtain advantages in life are inevitably self-regarding and selfish. If they prove successful in gaining us earthly and worldly advantage, we are inclined to become proudly pleased with our cleverness.
When we regenerate, however, things are different, because the Holy Spirit now lives within us, he provides inspiration on how to think, speak and act in any given situation we find ourselves in. Without having to think through how we are going to handle any particular situation so to gain maximum advantage for ourselves, we are simply given by God how to respond. Instead of needing to understand what has been happening and what is likely to unfold in order to master the present situation and bend it to our advantage, we can just act in the moment as the Spirit moves us, and be assured that the outcome will always be far better than where we to rely on our own puny wisdom.
So we are given the immediate understanding (hearing the sound of the wind) of how to speak, think and act that is perfectly appropriate for any situation we should find ourselves in. And this, despite knowing nothing about how it came about and what exactly will result from it. We know not from where the wind comes, nor do we know where it goes, but we don’t need to, because we trust in God’s providence. We now simply know how to live because God provides us with His wisdom. This is the deepest understanding we can experience in life.
To the natural life, this way of life can seem completely irrational. Jesus did say elsewhere that man’s of thinking was not his way of thinking. God’s thinking indeed can seem irrational to the man who seeks to lead himself in life from his own intelligence and wisdom. Because, unlike that man who has a formulaic approach to working out his problems (knowing where the wind comes from and where it goes), God seems to have an intuitive approach to it. God will often have a completely different response to instances of what appears to be identical situations. In reality, the Divine Wisdom is able to discern what is happening on every level of existence, whilst man, when compared to God, and separated from God, understands only superficially. Swedenborg makes it clear that a man is truly rational only to the extent that he acknowledges God and the spiritual reality of life. A man can be natural on the rational level of life, but he may well be devoid of a fundamental rationality that exists in his heart. Unless he has made the effort to accept the rationality of God -of the Holy Spirit- in his life, he will never be able to experience heaven in his life.
Nicodemus is an interesting character. His encounter with Jesus appears early in the gospel of John (chapter 3), but he makes appearances later when he is portrayed in a better light. It seems he responded positively to what Jesus told him earlier. It was he, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who after the crucifixion, laid Jesus to rest with full ceremony. Spiritually, death in the Bible signifies resurrection, for dying to our natural inclinations is to be reborn spiritually. By providing such offices, Nicodemus demonstrated that he now understood this essential concept regarding life’s purpose, which is the creation of a heaven from the human race. “Unless a man is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”