Born of Water: John 3:1-8, Part 1

[There was a section by this name in the original Born of Water, but I entirely rewrote it.]

BaptismofJesus2Now, as we’ve seen, there are plenty of passages that teach that if you have faith and are baptized, then you are saved. None of the previously quoted “baptism” passages, however, says what happens if you have faith and are not baptized. Perhaps baptism is one but not the only path to salvation.

We have to consider John 3:1-8 –

(John 3:1-8 ESV) Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

If “born of water” in verse 5 refers to baptism in water, Jesus has said that baptism is not only a path to heaven, it is the only path to heaven.

There are four possible meanings of “water” suggested in the commentaries:

  • The waters of physical birth
  • Baptism
  • The Holy Spirit
  • The water of conception

1. Physical birth

The argument for a reference to physical birth is that Jesus refers to being “born again” and that “flesh gives birth to flesh” in the immediate context, so that physical birth is very much a part of the discussion. Indeed, Nicodemus is moved to ask ironically whether Jesus is calling on him to return to his mother’s womb. And in English, we often refer to the “waters of birth” or to a mother’s “waters” being broken.

On the other hand, in chapter 1, when John wishes to refer to physical birth in 1:13, he refers to birth “of blood” (literally “from bloods”) – so why use a different metaphor here for the same idea in a similar context?

2. Baptism

There are strong arguments that baptism is in mind:

a. This is the position taken by the Christian church for centuries, by many different denominations and expositors:

Except he experience the great inward change of the Spirit, and be baptized (wherever baptism can be had) as the outward sign and means of it. – Wesley’s Notes.

John himself declared that his baptism was incomplete, – it was only with water. One was coming who should baptize with the Holy Ghost. That declaration of his is the key to the understanding of this verse. Baptism, complete, with water and the Spirit, is the admission into the kingdom of God. – Alford’s Greek Testament.

This regeneration, which our church in so many places ascribes to baptism, is more than being admitted into the church. … This is grounded on the plain words of our Lord in John 3:5. By water, then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again; whence it is called by the apostle, the washing of Regeneration. – Doctrinal Tracts, M. E. Church Edition of 1825.

Forasmuch as our Savior Christ saith, None can enter into the kingdom of God except he be regenerated and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost; I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous goodness he will grant to these persons that which by nature they cannot have; that they may be baptized with Water and the Holy Ghost, and received into Christ’s Holy Church, and be made lively members of the same. – Book of Common Prayer, Art. Baptism.

“John said: I baptize with water; the One coming after baptizes with Spirit; but Christ says: The baptism of both is necessary. One must be born of water and the Spirit.” – International Revision Commentary, edited by Dr. Schaff.[1]

It is true that the word water does often symbolize temptation in Holy Writ, especially in the Psalms. (Psalms 18:16; 69:1-3.) But here (John 3:5) it cannot be interpreted that way; for here Christ is speaking of baptism, of real and natural water such as a cow may drink, the baptism about which you hear in the sermons on this subject. Therefore, the word water does not designate affliction here; it means real, natural water, which is connected with God’s word and becomes a very spiritual bath through the Holy Spirit or through the entire Trinity. Here Christ also speaks of the Holy Spirit as present and active, in fact, the entire Holy Trinity is there. And thus the person who has been baptized is said to be born anew. In Tit 3:3 Paul terms baptism “a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” In the last chapter of Mark we read that “he who believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mark 16:16.) And in this passage Christ declares that whoever is not born anew of the water and the Holy Spirit cannot come into the kingdom of God. Therefore, God’s words dare not be tampered with. – Martin Luther’s Sermons on the Gospel of Saint John, Vol. 22, p. 283.[2]

The Church Fathers are unanimous in interpreting John 3:5 as a reference to baptism, as well[3]

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, and instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father . . . and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit [Matt 28:19], they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).

“`And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kings 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: `Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Fragment 34 [A.D. 190]).

“[N]o one can attain salvation without baptism, especially in view of the declaration of the Lord, who says, `Unless a man shall be born of water, he shall not have life.’” (Tertullian, Baptism 12:1 [A.D. 203]).

“The Father of immortality sent the immortal Son and Word into the world, who came to man in order to wash him with water and the Spirit; and He, begetting us again to incorruption of soul and body, breathed into us the Spirit of life, and endued us with an incorruptible panoply. If, therefore, man has become immortal, he will also be God. And if he is made God by water and the Holy Spirit after the regeneration of the laver he is found to be also joint-heir with Christ after the resurrection from the dead. Wherefore I preach to this effect: Come, all ye kindreds of the nations, to the immortality of the baptism.” (Hippolytus, Discourse on the Holy Theophany 8 [A.D. 217]).

“[When] they receive also the baptism of the Church . . . then finally can they be fully sanctified and be the sons of God . . . since it is written, `Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’” (Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 71[72]:1 [A.D. 253]).

“This then is what it means to be `born again of water and Spirit’: Just as our dying is effected in the water [Rom 6:3, Col 2:12-13], our living is wrought through the Spirit. In three immersions and an equal number of invocations the great mystery of baptism is completed in such a way that the type of death may be shown figuratively, and that by the handing on of divine knowledge the souls of the baptized may be illuminated. If, therefore, there is any grace in the water, it is not from the nature of water, but from the Spirit’s presence there.” (Basil the Great, The Holy Spirit, 15:35 [A.D. 375]).

“You have read, therefore, that the three witnesses in baptism are one: water, blood, and the Spirit (1 John 5:8): And if you withdraw any one of these, the sacrament of baptism is not valid. For what is the water without the cross of Christ? A common element with no sacramental effect. Nor on the other hand is there any mystery of regeneration without water, for `unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” (Ambrose of Milan, The Mysteries 4:20 [A.D. 390]).

“[In] the birth by water and the Spirit, [Jesus] himself led the way in this birth, drawing down upon the water, by his own baptism, the Holy Spirit; so that in all things he became the first-born of those who are spiritually born again, and gave the name of brethren to those who partook in a birth like to his own by water and the Spirit.” (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 2:8 [A.D. 382]).

“[N]o one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink his blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious? These [priests] truly are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth which comes through baptism: by their means we put on Christ, and are buried with the Son of God, and become members of that blessed Head.” (John Chrysostom, The Priesthood 3:5-6 [A.D. 387]).

“It is this one Spirit who makes it possible for an infant to be regenerated . . . when that infant is brought to baptism; and it is through this one Spirit that the infant so presented is reborn. For it is not written, `Unless a man be born again by the will of his parents’ or `by the faith of those presenting him or ministering to him,’ but, `Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit.’ The water, therefore, manifesting exteriorly the sacrament of grace, and the Spirit effecting interiorly the benefit of grace, both regenerate in one Christ that man who was generated in Adam.” (Augustine, Letters 98:2 [A.D. 412]).

_________________

[1]      Excerpted from B. W. Johnson, New Testament Commentary Vol. III: John (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1886). http://www.ccel.org/j/johnson_bw/bwjntc3/htm/

[2]      Quoted by Basil Overton, “How Are We Born of the Water and the Spirit?” http://www.gospelgazette.com/gazette/2001/mar/page17.htm.

[3]      Catholic Answers, http://www.catholic.com/ANSWERS/tracts/_bornagn.htm.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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13 Responses to Born of Water: John 3:1-8, Part 1

  1. Price Futrell says:

    Why the different metaphor.. 1st John, or as Trump would say, one John… :)… it is John writing… The discussion with Nicodemus is Jesus speaking and John recording His words…
    Why would Jesus tell the Disciples in Acts 1 that He was going to baptize them with the Spirit rather than with water ? There is no record of them being baptized into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus…
    And why, if the words of Jesus were so clear did Nicodemus think Jesus was speaking about natural birth ?
    You have to have a bent toward baptism as being some kind of salvific event to make the words of Jesus to Nicodemus refer to a yet unknown new type of water immersion.. It seems Jesus was somewhat perturbed with Nicodemus for not understanding but how could he had the new covenant water immersion not even yet been established ?
    And finally, of course God saves those that He said He would save by faith…The fact that He didn’t mention water immersion isn’t a problem unless one forces water immersion into a salvific role… John 3:16…

  2. Dwight says:

    Acts 2:38 and I Peter 3 “baptism now saves us.” should provide the salvific bent.

    Jay, you said, If “born of water” in verse 5 refers to baptism in water, Jesus has said that baptism is not only a path to heaven, it is the only path to heaven.”
    but baptism isn’t the path to heaven, but on the path, but you must pass this point on the path to be in Christ and reach heaven.
    Matt.5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” has Jesus alluding to the fact that the persecuted will reach heaven, but surely this isn’t the only path to heaven, but rather a point on the path
    Matt.5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.” is a true statement. But even the pure in heart, must go through Jesus, and we might not even know we are pure in heart.
    So I don’t buy that vs.5 creates the path, but lays out a place on the path, much like faith and repentance are on the path through Jesus to God.

    The irony is that in vs.5 Nicodemus wouldn’t have been born of the Spirit at that time either, even while Jesus is telling him that this is the way to heaven. The context for both being born of the water and Spirit would come later. But at least as a Jew he would have connected the concept of water and purification/cleansing together as this is how they were purified/cleansed before God.

  3. You may be headed here, so please forgive if I’m getting ahead. It bears noting that another argument for seeing this as a reference to baptism is the proximity of passages discussing baptism. In chapter 1, John the Baptist discusses baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. At the end of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4, we see the baptizing ministries of Jesus’ disciples and John.

  4. Monty says:

    One has to only read 17 verses from John 3:3-5 to see how baptism is brought into the context. Jesus’ disciples are baptizing left and right and so is John the Baptist. The baptism ministry switches the preeminence from John to Jesus. All of this was taking place right under the noses of the Pharisees(Nicodemus) and they(he) didn’t catch the spiritual awakening(movement).

  5. Monty says:

    WHoa Tim!

    Great minds and all that!

  6. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Carson’s comments are interesting:

    The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’8 turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration.9 Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind.

    Although the full construction ‘born of water and of the Spirit’ is not found in the Old Testament, the ingredients are there. At a minor level, the idea that Israel, the covenant community, was properly called ‘God’s son’ (Ex. 4:22; Dt. 32:6; Ho. 11:1) provides at least a little potential background for the notion of God ‘begetting’ people, enough, Brown thinks, that it should have enabled Nicodemus ‘to understand that Jesus was proclaiming the arrival of the eschatological times when men would be God’s children’ (1. 139). Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27). When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8). Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).

    In short, born of water and spirit (the article and the capital ‘S’ in the niv should be dropped: the focus is on the impartation of God’s nature as ‘spirit’ [cf. 4:24], not on the Holy Spirit as such) signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets. True, the prophets tended to focus on the corporate results, the restoration of the nation; but they also anticipated a transformation of individual ‘hearts’—no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.

    Some have argued that if the flow of the passage is anything like what has been described then it is hopelessly anachronistic, for John’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear (cf. esp. 7:37–39) that the Holy Spirit would not be given until after Jesus is glorified, and it is this Holy Spirit who must effect the new birth, even if the expression ‘born of water and spirit’ does not refer to the Holy Spirit per se. So how then can Jesus demand of Nicodemus such regeneration?

    The charge is ill-conceived. Jesus is not presented as demanding that Nicodemus experience the new birth in the instant; rather, he is forcefully articulating what must be experienced if one is to enter the kingdom of God. The resulting tension is no different from the corresponding Synoptic tension as to when the kingdom dawns. In Matthew, for instance, Jesus is born the King (Mt. 1–2), he announces the kingdom and performs the powerful works of the kingdom (4:17; 12:28), but it is not until he has arisen from the dead that all authority becomes his (28:18–20). That is why all discipleship in all four Gospels is inevitably transitional. The coming-to-faith of the first followers of Jesus was in certain respects unique: they could not instantly become ‘Christians’ in the full-orbed sense, and experience the full sweep of the new birth, until after the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. If we take the Gospel records seriously, we must conclude that Jesus sometimes proclaimed truth the full significance and application of which could be fully appreciated and experienced only after he had risen from the dead. John 3 falls under this category.

    It appears, then, that the passage makes good sense within the historical framework set out for us, i.e. as a lesson for Nicodemus within the context of the ministry of Jesus. But we must also ask how John expected his readers to understand it. If his targeted readers were hellenistic Jews and Jewish proselytes who had been exposed to Christianity and whom John was trying to evangelize (cf. Introduction, § VI, and notes on 20:30–31), then his primary message for them is clear. No matter how good their Jewish credentials, they too must be born again if they are to see or enter the kingdom of God. When John wrote this, Christian baptism had been practised for several decades (which was of course not the case when Jesus spoke with Nicodemus). If (and it is a quite uncertain ‘if’) the Evangelist expected his readers to detect some secondary allusion to Christian baptism in v. 5 (cf. Richter, Studien, pp. 327–345), the thrust of the passage treats such an allusion quite distantly. What is emphasized is the need for radical transformation, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises anticipating the outpouring of the Spirit, and not a particular rite. If baptism is associated in the readers’ minds with entrance into the Christian faith, and therefore with new birth, then they are being told in the strongest terms that it is the new birth itself that is essential, not the rite.10

  7. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel according to John by Don Carson

  8. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Craig Keener: The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volumes 1 & 2, 2003

    3B. Born of Water (3:5)

    Because Nicodemus missed Jesus’ point (3:4), Jesus explains what he means by birth from above, using what is probably an “earthly” analogy (3:12): the rebirth of which Jesus speaks is not physical birth, as Nicodemus supposed (3:4), but a spiritual birth (3:6).137 By “born from above” (3:3) Jesus probably means born “from God,” so 3:5 clarifies this claim with “born from the Spirit.” “Born of the Spirit” is clear enough in the context of early Christian teaching (Gal 4:23, 29; cf. 1 Pet 1:3, 23), but what Jesus means here by “born of water” (and how this helps explain “born from God”) is less clear, though it undoubtedly made sense to John’s original audience.

    Proposals include apocalyptic heavenly waters, waters of natural begetting (semen), or waters of baptism (those of Judaism, John the Baptist, or Christians). We will suggest that the entire phrase “born of water and of the Spirit” is equivalent to 3:3’s “born from above,” that is, from God, and therefore refers to the activity of the Spirit (7:37–39). Yet even if water refers, as we argue, to the Spirit, its specific mention by this title may be for contrast or comparison with either natural birth (1:13; 3:6) or baptism (1:31, 33), and in view of Jewish usage and John’s context, I believe that the latter is far more likely.

    One way to read “water” in this context is to suppose that it refers to natural birth,138 so that 3:6 expounds 3:5: one must be born of both flesh and the Spirit. This interpretation makes some sense of the following context, of the birth or begetting image, and could be supported by a reading of 1 John,139 but it has two flaws. The first is that, natural as “water” would be to describe the eruption of embryonic fluid from the amniotic sac at birth, it is a very rare description in extant early Jewish texts (though perhaps because midwives were women and rabbis were men).140 One could circumvent this problem by reading instead “begotten from water and the Spirit,” referring to conception rather than birth,141 in view of the frequent use of water for semen.142 But “water” could represent a variety of mostly transparent fluids,143 and on the level of Johannine theology it is (as we shall argue below) explicitly associated with the Spirit, for which semen seems a less apt metaphor than baptism does (1 John 3:9 refers to the word, as in Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23; Luke 8:11;144 contrast the language of Spirit-baptism in early Christian sources). Further, as others have pointed out, “from blood” would have been a more natural metaphor for birth or conception than “from water” (cf. 1:13).145

    The second and more important problem is that this interpretation does not fit what 3:5 says, perhaps echoing instead Nicodemus’s misunderstanding. Jesus is calling Nicodemus to be born of water and the Spirit as prerequisites for entering the kingdom; the context indicates that Nicodemus has already been born of the flesh and needs no incentive to do so again (3:4); rather, Jesus wishes to encourage him to be born of the Spirit and not of the flesh (3:6). Born “from water and from the Spirit” explains “born from above” in 3:3.

    Odeberg also proposed that the waters refer to the celestial waters around God’s throne in Jewish throne-visions;146 this would correspond with “above” in 3:3 and might fit the theme of “ascent” in the context (3:13). But given the multiple uses of the water image, this one, restricted largely to throne-visions, seems less than obvious for John’s audience, particularly given the absence of such waters in the opening throne-visions of Revelation.147 In light of 3:8, Hodges suggests that we read “water and Spirit” in 3:5 as “water and wind,” hence parallel to “above,” and by implication “heaven,” in 3:3.148 Hodges’s appeal to context is insightful, but because we read πνεῦμα in 3:8 as both “wind” and “Spirit”—that is, as a double entendre (see below)—and the nearer context of Spirit in 3:6 offers no allusion to wind, we doubt that the allusion is clear in 3:5.

    As we argue with regard to the relevant passages in this commentary, most “water” passages in the Fourth Gospel suggest some contrast with Jewish ritual.149 The following context points to conflict between regular Jewish lustrations and John’s baptism (3:22–25), as well as the greater baptism of Jesus (3:26–4:1), though even Jesus’ baptism is by implication distinguished from and greater than the mere water baptism administered by his disciples (1:33; 3:34; 4:2).

    Jesus could allude in this context to the need for Nicodemus to submit to John’s baptism as a prerequisite for the coming of the Spirit.150 But while John is certainly a foil and witness for Jesus (1:8, 15, 26–27) and his baptism fits the following context,151 in view of 2:6 and 3:25 we suspect that John’s baptism becomes not the single foil, but merely the highest example of the inadequacy of Jewish purification rituals. Given how the Baptist is continually subordinated to Jesus in the Gospel and the possible abuse some may have been making of the Baptist’s name (see comment on 1:6–8), it is improbable that the Fourth Gospel would here elevate his baptism to a prerequisite for birth from above.

    Yet John’s baptism may be seen in continuity with Christian baptism. Certainly John’s baptism was incomplete without Jesus’ gift of the Spirit, but John’s death did not end the practice of baptism, which already had been adopted by the Jesus movement (4:1–3).152 The proposal that John 3:5 refers to Christian baptism also has much to commend it.153 Like the image of becoming a newborn child, the command to baptism stems from earlier in the Jesus tradition.154 Moreover, one can argue that baptism and faith typically occur together in Johannine thought; Potterie contends that faith elsewhere precedes (1 John 5:6), accompanies (John 19:34–35), and here follows Christian baptism.155 Unfortunately, the baptismal character of these other references is also disputable,156 and it is difficult to see that Christian baptism would be offering Nicodemus an earthly analogy he could grasp (3:10–12). Still, John and his audience clearly do presuppose some information which Nicodemus does not (such as the identification of water with the Spirit in 7:37–39), so it is not impossible that John intends a reference to Christian baptism. Whatever else the water here means, if it alludes to any kind of baptism (and it probably does), it alludes to the public crossing of social boundaries, which would transfer Nicodemus from one community to another.157

    It is hardly self-evident, however, that John’s audience would presuppose Christian baptism here; even some interpreters who see Christian baptism in this text acknowledge that the Fourth Gospel includes no other clear references to the ritual.158 Further, in the context of his whole water motif, where Jesus frequently supersedes the water of Jewish traditions (see comment on 2:6; 4:10; 5:2; 7:38; 9:6; 19:34), including the water of John’s baptism (1:33), we propose another interpretation as more likely.159

    One Jewish lustration ritual probably makes the most appropriate sense of the “earthly” analogy (3:12) that Jesus seems to offer Nicodemus: as noted above, converts to Judaism were apparently seen as newborn children, and proselyte baptism seems to have been a vital step in this conversion process. If this is the referent of “water,” it would certainly drive home a stark point: the teacher of Israel (3:10) himself needs to become a true Israelite (1:47), a true child of Abraham (8:39–40), one of the Lord’s sheep (10:14–15).160

    Proselyte baptism is almost certainly pre-Christian, as we argued on 1:26–27. An early, explicit connection between proselyte baptism and the point at which a convert becomes a newborn child is more difficult to prove, given the paucity of discussion of baptism in our earliest extant Jewish sources.161 By the third century c.e., however, the connection is explicit,162 and it is far less likely that the rabbis would have borrowed this idea from the Christians than that the syncretistic Mysteries would have done so. If John alludes to a Jewish ritual here as in many of his references to water, the most likely is the one associated with conversion, which again seems to have been associated with the image of rebirth in Judaism. This is not to suggest, however, that the Fourth Gospel means by “water” what most of early Judaism meant: early Jewish Christians had long before transformed Jewish proselyte baptism into an act of Christian conversion (e.g., Acts 2:38, 41),163 and the gospel tradition had long before employed “baptism” as an image for entering the eschatological life of the Spirit (Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33).

  9. Jesse Winn says:

    In chapter 1 of John ” born of blood” is not the only thing mentioned that one is born of, so why couldn’t John say “water” later on? Especially if he is quoting someone who might use different wordage than he uses. Not to mention the point there in chapter 1:12-13 is that physical birth and lineage is not enough, but he who believes is saved by being born of spirit. This seems to be the point that the context is dealing with in chapter 3. I believe in baptism and it’s role in making one a child of God, however, I do not see John 3 as referring to baptism. I believe it is forcing something on the text that is not naturally there.

  10. Christopher says:

    Jay wrote:

    The argument for a reference to physical birth is that Jesus refers to being “born again” and that “flesh gives birth to flesh” in the immediate context, so that physical birth is very much a part of the discussion.

    I think we can dispense with this notion on the grounds (besides those given) that this would put Jesus in the position of saying something like “unless one is alive (having been born of water), he cannot enter the kingdom of God”. It is assumed that if one is alive, he has been born. So there is little need to characterize the manner of that birth. Indeed, Jesus in the same breath speaks of being born of the flesh. Why would he switch metaphors here? Nicodemus would hardly have missed the reference to baptism, given the ministry of John the Baptist.

  11. dwight says:

    It is clear John 3 is speaking of a second birth, although in reference to the first birth. water and spirit is both part of the human birthing experience in that man has the spirit placed into him and he is preceded by water in birth, the second birth would then be like the first in that water is involved and a new Spirit is placed within man although the orders are reversed.

  12. Larry Cheek says:

    Beginning here to identify who performed the action. Was not Christ identified as The Word?
    Eph 5:25 ESV Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

    When did Christ do this if not during water baptism?
    Ephesians 5:26

    (ASV) that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word,

    (BBE) So that he might make it holy, having made it clean with the washing of water by the word,

    (CEV) He made the church holy by the power of his word, and he made it pure by washing it with water.

    (DRB) That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life:

    (ERV) He died to make the church holy. He used the telling of the Good News to make the church clean by washing it with water.

    (ESV) that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,

    (GNB) He did this to dedicate the church to God by his word, after making it clean by washing it in water,

    (GW) He did this to make the church holy by cleansing it, washing it using water along with spoken words.

    (ISV) so that he might make it holy by cleansing it, washing it with water and the word,

    (KJV) That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,

    (LEB) in order that he might sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word;

    (LITV) that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the washing of the water in the Word,

    (MKJV) that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word,

    (RV) that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word,

    (YLT) that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it with the bathing of the water in the saying, that he might present it to himself the assembly in glory, not having spot or wrinkle, or any of such things, but that it may be holy and unblemished;

  13. Ray Downen says:

    John wasn’t trying to be obtuse (difficult to understand) by speaking of a new birth of water and spirit. The apostles make clear by speech and action that the reference is to REPENTANCE (of the human spirit) and BAPTISM IN WATER for the new birth which brings a person into the church of Jesus Christ. The water is water. The spirit is the human spirit. The apostles ADD that after this new birth of water and spirit, God GIFTS HIS SPIRIT to the new Christian.

    And of course it’s all possible because of GOD. It’s from above, not any doing of men. The “plan of salvation” is strictly what is taught by Jesus and His apostles, that the gospel is to be preached (taught in whatever way that can be done) and OBEYED by the hearer turning to Jesus as LORD and by his/her accepting the baptism commanded by Jesus for every new believer. The water involved is the water in which the person is baptized. The spirit is obviously the spirit of the person now seeking to obey Jesus and be saved by Him.

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