“Born of Water and the Spirit”: What Did Jesus Mean?

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (Jn. 3:5, NASB).

Given Jesus’ strong and unequivocal statement (“he cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven”), it is hardly surprising that these words have captured so much attention over time. Yet for many, this passage remains a source of controversy and confusion. Few of us have any difficulty understanding what being born of the Spirit means. At the new birth, Christians are regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), baptised into one body and made to drink of that same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), and finally, sealed by Him (that is, the Spirit is God’s mark that we belong to Him, Eph. 1:134:30). The giving of the Spirit is associated with sonship (ie we received the Holy Spirit when we became sons and daughters of God, Rom. 8:15Gal. 4:6), and anyone without the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him (Rom. 8:9). Yet establishing the meaning of the phrase `born of water’ has proved somewhat more problematic. Let us examine briefly some of the main interpretations of this phrase.

Some, mainly the Roman Catholics, have generally taken water here to mean the sacrament of baptism. Thus, it is argued by many Catholics that anyone not baptised cannot enter heaven, a doctrine based on a misinterpretation of 1 Peter 3:21. Aside from the grammatical basis for dismissing the predominantly Catholic interpretation of this verse (see any good commentary), one must also reject this doctrine on commonsense grounds. Are we to believe any Christian who dies before having an opportunity to be baptised is cast into hell by God? Must we baptise children at the first available moment after birth in order to to ensure that, should they die prematurely, they will go to heaven? Of course not. Such beliefs hardly portray God as fair and just. Going back to Jesus’ words in John 3:5, there is a link with baptism (see below), but Jesus was certainly not ordaining that the sacrament of baptism was a necessary precursor to salvation.

Several commentators have suggested the words ‘water and’ in John 3:5 did not appear in the original manuscript, and were instead added later by a redactor in order to support the doctrine that baptism is an essential aspect of salvation. However, there is no strong textual evidence for such an inclusion. In fact, quite the reverse is true: the oldest and best manuscripts include the reference to water.

Some believe the water which Jesus refers to is amniotic fluid (ie the liquid surrounding and protecting an unborn child while in its mother’s womb). Thus, Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus that one must be born of both a woman and the Spirit, that is, one must be born spiritually as well as naturally in order to be saved (cf. Jn. 3:4). Others have suggested that the phrase Jesus employed in John 3:5 was an allegorical reference to the fluid pouring from Christ’s side when He was pierced with a lance (cf. Ps. 22:14, Jn. 19:34). Yet others point to the rabbinic idea that water, especially rain and dew, represented an allegorical reference to (or type of) human seed, and therefore symbolised new life.

Several of these views certainly help to shed some light on Jesus’ words. For example, converts to Judaism were regarded by rabbis as ‘newborn,’ which correlates with the rabbinical idea of water symbolising new life. Interestingly, the final act carried out by a proselyte before being accepted in Judaism was to be baptised. Thus, the water symbolised a new life, a new beginning within the context of Judaism. Meanwhile, the amniotic fluid surrounding an unborn baby is also clearly linked with the idea of newness of life: when a woman’s waters ‘break’, it heralds the arrival a new life into this world. Yet however interesting and valuable this insight may be, it is also imperative that we examine Jesus’ words in their original context, if we are to understand fully what He was saying.

First, consider briefly this narrative in relation to several others that appear in John’s gospel. Chapter 1 informs us of John the Baptist’s ministry, as well as alluding to Jesus’ baptism. In chapter 3, immediately

after His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus and His disciples themselves also engage in the practice of baptising people (3:22). Note also that John was still carrying out his baptismal ministry at this time (3:23), while his disciples were indignant that more people were now seeking baptism from Jesus than John (3:25-6). John’s response is significant. He states: He must increase, but I must decrease (3:27-30). In other words, ‘His ministry (His baptism) is more significant than mine’. (This becomes particularly evident in the very next chapter, during Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well; here we learn it is Jesus, not John, who gives the ‘living water’ that leads to eternal life, Jn. 4:1013-14). The fact, then, that John 3:5 is sandwiched between these two very important references to baptism is highly significant. The concept of baptism must, in some way, help to explain what Jesus meant.

Next, it should be noted that in the Bible water is very often symbolic of washing and purification (eg. Lev. 22:6Ps. 51:2,7Ezek. 16:4,9Heb. 10:22). In fact, this is what baptism symbolises: that is, to be cleansed (of sin), to be washed, or in other words, to bury the old and arise from the baptismal waters in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). Note what Paul says in Titus 3:5: “He saved us, not on the basis of deed which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” (NASB). John’s baptism was symbolic: it could not wash away sin. Yet through Jesus we receive living water, a true baptism that successfully washes away sin, makes us pure and gives us newness of life through His shed blood. This, in turn, paves the way for us to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit (at the moment our sins are washed away and we become sons and daughters of God, Rom. 8:9Gal. 4:6). Note the unity of all three – the water, the Spirit, and the blood – in 1 Jn. 5:6,8.

Thus, in John 3:5 Jesus was not instructing people to be baptised in order to be saved. Rather, He was stating the absolute necessity of what baptism symbolically represents – being sprinkled clean – which is only available through Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. Being born of water and the Spirit, then, simply means to be sprinkled clean (ie for our sins to be washed away through Christ) and regenerated by the Spirit (to be given new life). Both are essential aspects of salvation.

Yet the significance of Jesus’ words in John 3:5 does not end there. In fact, this concept of sprinkling and newness of life through the Spirit was not a new one for the Jews. God had promised that one day he would sprinkle clean His people Israel and put a new Spirit within them (Ez. 36:25-7 cf 18:31Is. 44:1-3). Taken on its own, Ezekiel 36 might simply be understood to be a promise for the returning exiles in Zerubbabel’s day. Yet bearing in mind the Jewish concept of multiple fulfillments of prophecy, this passage finds its ultimate expression, or fulfillment, when all Israel shall be saved (Rom. 11:25-7).

Moreover, in Zechariah chapters 12 and 13 (which are clearly eschatological in nature, and from a proper exegetical point-of-view simply cannot be limited to some point in Israel’s past), we see how one day God will open a fountain to sprinkle clean the House of David (13:1), and will pour out His Spirit upon them as they look upon Him whom they pierced (12:10). Again, we see both water and the Spirit linked together. Hence, though Paul explains how, for the time being, Israel has been blinded in part for the sake of the Gentiles, nevertheless Israel also one day will be sprinkled clean and receive God’s Spirit, marking that time when the house of House of David will also be brought in to the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-4).

Perhaps this blindness (or hardening) Paul refers to explains Jesus’ comment in John 3:10(“Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?”). Nicodemus, an important religious scholar with an intimate knowledge of his nation’s religious history and theology, did not understand the significance of these things. Yet in a twist of irony, in the very next chapter we meet a Samaritan woman who, unlike Nicodemus, is neither Jewish, a religious scholar or a pious person. Yet she immediately recognises the living water Jesus has to offer and believes in him. Happily, it would appear the veil was eventually lifted from Nicodemus’ eyes, and that he too became a follower of Christ (Jn. 19:39).

What John 3:5 teaches us, then, is that salvation is a twofold process: 1) forgiveness (or sprinkling, cleansing) and, 2) regeneration. Notice also how soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is inextricably intertwined with Israel’s place in history. Systematic theologians may well seek to establish a theology of salvation which is independent of Israel. Yet God used Israel as the vehicle for His salvific plan! For example, the essence of Ezekiel 36-38 is to demonstrate God’s salvific plan for the entire world through His people Israel (see also Rom. 9:3-5). It is therefore inconceivable that Israel herself should not be included in that salvation. Through Israel, the Gentiles are saved, who in turn provoke the Jews to

jealousy, who in turn will one day turn back to God. No wonder, at the end of his discussion of these things, Paul exclaims: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways” (Rom. 11:33).

Revd. Calvin Smith B.Ed., M.A. (Principal)


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