The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series
Breathed: A Study on the Biblical Distinction Between Regeneration and Spirit Baptism
Fri, 12 Jul 2013 - 2:32 PM CST
By Ben C. Aker
There are two Biblical texts that scholars often discuss, frequently misinterpret, and thus confuse regarding regeneration and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. They are John 20:19-23 and Acts 2. In the first of these references the word “breathed” occurs. This study then will focus on the meaning and use of the word in John 20:22. I propose that “breathed” refers to regeneration and concerns an actual, supernatural event in which Jesus imparts eternal life to the first disciples through the Spirit. This paper will discuss“ breathed” under two main headings: its lexical and conceptual meanings and uses and the contribution of John’s theology to its meaning and use.
THE LEXICAL AND CONCEPTUAL MEANINGS AND USES OF THE WORD “BREATHED”
“Breathed” occurs frequently in the Scriptures and in nonbiblical Jewish works. My interest, however, concentrates on this word in contexts where God and life are connected with it. Since the word in John is Greek (enephusesen), I will use the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament to focus upon the use of the word.
Genesis 27 is the first reference where “breathed” is noted. There, after God made man from the earth, He “breathed” (enephusesen) into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being. This instance records a supernatural event in which God gave natural life to mankind.
The next text, Ezekiel 37:9, uses “breathed” to describe the restoration of Israel. God told the prophet to prophesy to the breath (literally wind or spirit) and say: “Breathe [enephusesen] into these dead people and let them live.” In the next verse, this breath came into them and they lived. Obviously “breathe” here does not refer to the creation of natural life. This event is a deliverance experience in which these people are brought back to the land. The restoration is depicted in resurrection terms (verse 13ff.) and the means of the rebirth is by the Spirit. Although this prophetic experience was not fulfilled at that time, none the less it is real for the future.
Until now, the Greek and Hebrew words for “breathed,” which I have discussed are equivalent in meaning. However, the translators of the Hebrew text in the second century before Christ did not maintain an equivalency in meaning in 1 Kings 17:21. This verse is in the story of the woman’s boy who had died and who was raised by Elijah. The Hebrew text says the prophet stretched himself (mdd) upon the boy. But in the Septuagint, mdd is translated by enephusesen, “breathed,” so it reads, “Elijah breathed upon him.” This rendering shows these Jewish scholars also connected God’s activity of giving life to the action of breathing. These men interpreted the word rather than translating it. Since the lad’s life in verse 17 is literally “breath,” his restoration is described with the word “breathed.” God actually performed a miracle. This was not just a symbol Elijah acted out.
There are also several places in nonbiblical Jewish literature where the authors connected“ breathed” to God’s activity of creation. In Wisdom 15:11, which was written shortly before the time of Christ, the same Greek word for “breathed” is used when talking about the creation account in Genesis. The same term occurs also in one of the major manuscripts (Sinaiticus) of the book of Tobit. There in 6:19, “breathed” brings healing and wholeness. Finally, a rabbinic commentary written after the time of Jesus uses the word and the ideas associated with it. When the rabbis commented upon “And [he] breathed into his nostrils” in Genesis 2:7, they said, “Because in this world (he was endowed with life) by breathing [emphasis mine] (therefore he is mortal); but in the time to come he shall receive it as a gift, as it is written, ‘And I will put my spirit into you, and ye shall live’ (Ezekiel 37:14).” This Jewish comment places together “life,” “breathing,” “spirit,” and “the age to come. “l
The conclusion we can reach then about “breathed” in these references is significant for understanding John 20:22. First, “breathed” always has to do with creating life, either natural or spiritual. Moreover, though symbolic action may accompany some of these instances, there is constantly an overriding emphasis upon the supernatural activity of God. These actions and the concrete term “breathed” present God as a personal and powerful God. Furthermore, the idea of “breathed” was pervasive in the Old Testament, in Judaism, and in the New Testament. Finally, the Spirit’s role in creation is strongly supported by the Old Testament. Some of the references are Genesis 1:2 and Psalm 104:29,30.2
“Breathed” in John 20:22 then pertains to the regeneration of the first disciples. John used the word because his Jewish audience would immediately recognize the apostle was calling Jesus God. The particular principle he used to record the episode is called a Kayotze bo bemaqom ’aher. This is one of Hillel’s rules that the apostle uses to portray Jesus as God. This principle means that whatever is said of A can also be said equally of B. That is, whatever is said about God in the Old Testament can be said about Jesus in the New. As God created in the Old Testament, so Jesus the Son of God creates in the New, This event in John 20:19–23 then is the new creation of Jesus, the Church. Moreover, the reason John records the regeneration of the disciples here is that there could be no dispute over who does the creating. No other person can bring one into the kingdom of God. Jesus must make one anew by the Spirit.
THE CONTRIBUTION OF JOHN’S THEOLOGY TO THE MEANING AND USE OF “BREATHED”
We must have an initial understanding regarding John’s emphasis upon being born again. The major reason He wrote his Gospel was that there was a need to define the Church. Who were the true people of God? Could anyone believe anything about Jesus and be a “Christian”? The answer according to John is “no.” One has to believe Jesus is God and have faith in Him. Then the Spirit comes to regenerate him. One is born into the Kingdom supernaturally from above by the Spirit, not by any natural means (John 1:12ff.).
I mention several texts regarding regeneration in the fourth Gospel. The first is John 3 where Jesus discussed regeneration with Nicodemus. Jesus makes it plain that what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. That is, there are two states of being for man, one which comes through natural means and another which arrives through the Spirit’s means. These two are radically distinct. In 3:3 the emphatic amen saying of Jesus makes it evident that one must be born again. Furthermore, this emphatic statement, “Unless one is born from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God,” means the same as the parallel saying in verse 5, “Unless one is born of water and spirit, he is not able to go into the kingdom of God.” This parallel signifies that the means of regeneration is the Spirit, not water baptism, nor as some say natural birth (i.e., they take “water” to mean natural birth, the first step in salvation).
Another text is in John 7:37ff., which refers to rivers of water pouring from the side of Jesus. In the imagery of the Feast of Booths, the context of this statement, the messianic expectations connect the altar rock in the temple to the idea of the Rock as messiah. This messiah will restore the people by sending the Spirit of God to renew them. Thus Jesus is the Rock (see 1 Corinthians 10:4) who gives the Spirit. This feast did not have any expectations of the coming of the Spirit connected with its services as the feast in Acts 2. We must keep the imagery and expectations of the feasts in mind when we interpret some of the prophetic texts of the New Testament. This observation further strengthens my suggestion that regeneration and Spirit baptism are distinct. In the New Testament regeneration is associated with Passover and the Feast of Booths, while the giving of the Spirit is associated with the Feast of Pentecost. Therefore when John mentions the giving of the Spirit, he has reference to the regenerating work of the Spirit in 20:22. It is significant that the Holy Spirit did not inspire the apostle to use the Feast of Pentecost in his Gospel that bears his name. The Holy Spirit did not want to confuse what happened on that eventful holiday recorded in Acts 2 when the Spirit descended with what Jesus did before He ascended in John 20. We submit, therefore, that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit. Before the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples believed but were not born again until the experience in John 20:19ff.
I have demonstrated that “breathed” in John 20:22 refers to regeneration and therefore is distinct from the baptism in the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2. By showing these two experiences are not to be confused with each other, the support for tongues as the initial evidence for the Spirit’s baptism is strengthened. Acts 2 does not record the founding of the Church but the empowering of it. Charismatic theology should always have Christ, the Son of God, as its Giver of life and the Spirit as its Source of power.
Ben C. Aker, Ph.D., professor emeritus of New Testament Exegesis, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri
This article first appeared in Summer 1983 Paraclete, vol. 17, no. 3.
1. Genesis Rabbah 14:8.
2. See also Baruch 23:5 and Ethelbert Stauffer in “émphusáo” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964–76): 1537, note 9.