Baptism by water, OK but by the Holy Spirit? What’s that about? John 3:1-15 by Revd Alex Pease

Nicodemus John 3:1-15

‘He is an Englishman!
For he himself has said it,
And it’s greatly to his credit,
That he is an Englishman!

For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!’

Released in 1878, these lyrics, part of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore expressed the imperial confidence of the people of a Kingdom which ruled a quarter of the world’s land mass.

The Victorian Briton (Scots Welsh and Irish as well) at the close of the 19th century was proud to be British and felt a duty to civilise the world. He supported missionaries, grasping their Books of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern who set out across Asia and Africa and the South Sea Islands everywhere to bring the heathen savages to Christianity.

He had absolute confidence in his moral superiority.

It was a great thing to be born British in the middle of the 19th century.  The British were the people of the greatest kingdom on earth and of course automatically on the side of the angels; bringing light to dark places.

Being born British, baptised into the established church meant being right and provided you attended church regularly and took Communion, you were also entitled to a place in heaven.

2000 years before, a Pharisee living in Jerusalem would have felt the same way, not about being British, of course, but about being a circumcised Jewish believer. Pharisees were automatically on the side of the angels.

A Pharisee believed that all Jews (except apostates) were the people of God with automatic entry into the kingdom of God through resurrection on the last day. To be born a Jew, circumcised on the eighth day was to be an inheritor of the kingdom of God.

Quite a shock then for Nicodemus, the top of the cream of Jewish society a member of the Council of Elders to encounter Jesus and to be challenged by him in the dramatic way suggested in this passage.

Jesus says you cannot even see the Kingdom of God if you have only been born ‘of the flesh’ (Verse 6).  It is not enough to be born of the flesh, to be born a Jew or we might say to be born British to enter the Kingdom of God you must also be born of waterand the spirit(Verse 5)

But what did Jesus mean????  Born of water and the spirit, what does that mean?

Nicodemus, who is no slouch by the way, says, as we might,‘but how can anyone enter a second timeinto the mother’s womb?’ It just doesn’t make sense, Jesus…

We can see that Nicodemus’ reasoning has driven him to see Jesus in the first place.  He is facing a dilemma.  Fellow members of the Jewish Council of Elders, people like him, people he respects, say that this simple man from Galilee cannot be the Messiah, that he is a threat to Jewish society, to everything that they hold dear.

And yet the evidence just won’t lie down the evidence demands that Jesus is recognized as someone very special indeed….

Nicodemus says to Jesus verse 2 ‘we know…we know that you are a teacher which has come from God for no-one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’

He cannot get away from the proof of God’s involvement which the miracles provide.  But although his reasoning is driving him to see Jesus his logic turns out to be an obstacle preventing him from going the whole journey.

He knows there is more.  But how to get there….

In fact, Jesus says you cannot even see (verse 3) the Kingdom of God if you have not been ‘born from above’ or in some translations ‘born again’.

But why does this matter?

Why would we; why would Nicodemus want to see or enter the kingdom of God, we might ask?

When we enter, the Kingdom of God during our lives we can lead a life which has timeless significance, instead of eventual pointlessness; a life which gives support during suffering;  a life which gives peace in pain; a life which gives joy, despite our circumstances; and ultimately, after our lives have passed, victory over death and eternal life with the Father.

Isn’t that what we all want in the depths of our hearts?

Certainly, the Who Cares survey we conducted last year suggests that over half of us in Itchen Valley are desperateto be able to cope with what life throws at us.

But to enter this kingdom of God, it is not enough simply to be born Jewish or, we might say today, it is not enough simply to be born British.

Jesus says we must be born again from above; born of water and the spirit.

But Jesus, what does that mean?

All previous references to water in St John’s gospel relate to John’s  baptising ministry.  Accordingly, Jesus probably means that to enter the Kingdom, we must first be willing to submit to John’s baptism, which we know was a baptism of water for repentance; a washing clean from a previous life of sin. So Jesus is saying, without repentance and baptism we cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Pharisees like Nicodemus would not have thought that baptism was necessary for a Jew. The kingdom of God was his birthright.

So the first point is that to enter the Kingdom of God, we must have the baptism of water, a baptism of repentance.  And all of us here, I guess, have had that baptism of water – a baptism of repentance

So tick!

But a baptism of repentance is not enough by itself: We must be born of water and the Spirit.  There must also be a baptism of the Holy Spirit.

What does that mean?

We need look no further than Jesus’ own baptism in John 1.

John the Baptist describing that baptism verse 32 says “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him’.

When we lived in Kilmeston, we had a dovecote inherited from the previous owners.  One year I decided to restock it and ordered some fan tail doves.  They arrived in the post in two cardboard boxes.  We put the doves in the dovecote and built a cage around them with wooden posts and wire netting.  They had to stay there for eight weeks to get used to their new home. We fed them every day and eventually the day came to release them.  This turned out to be a bit of a performance and there was a lot of crashing and banging to open up the cage we had built.  Eventually the doves were released.  They flew round the garden twice and then off into the distance never to be seen again.

As doves are sensitive to actual noise – they have minds of their own – the Holy Spirit is very sensitive to emotional noise and He most certainly has a mind of his own.

No human gets to control him.  So how can we ensure that we are baptised by the Spirit?

We can’t.

Because it is up to him; not up to us.

But we can certainly put him off us….

Its like this: the sort of thing which grieves the Holy Spirit; that sends the dove away are such things as lack of forgiveness, bitterness, immorality, self pity,self righteousness, defensiveness; in short, pride. A really good book to read on this subject is RT Kendall’s Sensitivity of the Spirit Sensitivity of the Spirit by RT Kendall

In summary as I always say ‘Its all about the heart’.

As many of you know I am writing a book with Yann Dubreil, the Rector of Bentley Froyle and Binsted which is about how followers of Jesus are made in the rural church: people who have entered that Kingdom of God; people for whom Christ’s teaching, as expressed in the Bible, is now the most important factor in their life decisions; people who know what their lives are for and can cope with anything that life throws at them; can cope with the secret agonies that so many of us suffer; can cope with suffering, without despair, people who have effectively been baptised in the Spirit….

During the course of the research for this book I have interviewed 20 or so people who have become followers of Jesus in the rural church; churches just like this one; people just like us.

How has this happened?

Almost all of those I interviewed used to attend church periodically but something happened in their lives which provoked a much deeper engagement with Jesus than they had had before.

There is a before and after.

Some speak of being challenged by a talk or encounter with a vicar about the depth of their faith; others speak of the warmth of friendship after a bereavement gradually leading them to faith.  Often (but not always) it is suffering causing them to re-evaluate their lives; who they are.

Whatever the catalyst, the Holy Spirit so often responds wonderfully to the humility induced by their suffering.

Some speak of feeling the tangible presence of God: a sense of calm, connection, reassurance, being bathed in light and love.  One speaks of ‘a metaphorical rucksack shifting and slipping’; another of a veil being lifted and that they could now make sense of the Old Testament and New Testament; or a realisation that they didbelieve that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for them and rose again; another of being brought home.

And one wonderfully had this experience using her words:

‘I had occasionally prayed to God, but it wasn’t until about twelve years ago at our village church Patronal Service that I received an answer to my prayers.

 I decided to go up for a blessing, when the vicar placed his hand on my head for the blessing, I had a spiritual experience. I felt a surge of energy escaping my body which left me in a collapsed state, leaving me trembling and crying at the altar rail. It was in this moment that I heard an authoritative, emotionless voice which was not my own. It simply said:“I love you. Listen to him. Be yourself – as I made you.”

 A changed life followed.

 Not all of us will be blessed by such a vivid encounter.

I haven’t had such an encounter myself, although I would love to have done.  But I have had a changed life.

But the key is to ask the Holy Spirit in repentance and humility to come into our lives.

I will put a prayer by which we can do this when I post this talk on our website.

So if you have never prayed it you can do so in the privacy of your own home.

And so we return to Nicodemus.  Was his life changed by this encounter?

In spiritual things, we look at the fruit: what people DO; not what they say to try to ascertain what is going on under the surface.

The next time we hear of him in the New Testament, Nicodemus is taking huge personal risks standing up for Jesus in the Council and ultimately very dangerously, going with Joseph of Arimathea to collect Jesus’ body from Pilate:

A changed life.

A subject of the King


A Prayer to seek a baptism of the Holy Spirit

Lord Jesus Christ
I am sorry for the things
I have done wrong in my life
(take a few moments
to ask for His forgiveness
for anything that is on your conscience)

Please forgive me.

I now turn from everything
that I know that is wrong.

Thank you that you died on the Cross
for me, so that I could be forgiven
and set free.

Thank you that you offer me forgiveness
and the gift of your Spirit.

I now receive that gift.

Please come into my life
by your Holy Spirit,
to be with me for ever.

Thank you Lord Jesus


John 3:1–15(NRSV)

Nicodemus Visits Jesus

3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.






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