Born of Water: John 3:1-8, Part 2

BaptismofJesus2b. Baptism is very much in the context. John 1:19 ff. discusses the baptism of John. Indeed, in 1:26, John the Baptist says “I baptize with water” and in 1:33, John says that Jesus “will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” This is, of course, parallel with “born of water and Spirit” (although John the Baptist speaks disjunctively – it’s water or it’s Spirit) whereas Jesus is speaking conjunctively (which is closer to the church’s traditional understanding but not how John the Baptist spoke). Immediately after the account of Jesus with Nicodemus, we read in 3:22 that Jesus and his disciples went to the countryside and baptized with water.

c. There is no evidence that the Jews thought of water as an element of or symbol for physical birth. Indeed, John’s earlier references to natural physical birth speak of being “born of blood.” John 1:12-13.[4] In both cases, “of” is the same preposition, ‘ek. One commentator who sought evidence that the Jews used “water” to refer to physical birth came up with considerable evidence of water being a Jewish metaphor for conception, but nothing for associating water with physical birth.[5]

d. The Greek tends to support that only one birth is in mind –

The unity of the two elements is shown by the use of the single preposition ‘ek: ‘by water and Spirit’.[6]

3. Holy Spirit

On the other hand, there are good arguments that the Spirit is in mind

a. “Water” is often used in the OT to refer to the Spirit.

(Isa 44:3 ESV) For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

(Isa 32:14-15 ESV) For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; 15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.

(Eze 39:29 ESV) “And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”

(Joel 2:28-29 ESV) “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”

“Pour out” is clearly a water metaphor.

b. In John, the Spirit is referred to as water. In John 7:37 John is explicit –

(John 7:37-39 ESV) On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Commentators are nearly unanimous that Jesus’ references to “living water” in John 4, his conversation with the Samaritan woman, are also references to the Holy Spirit.[7]

Some object that if “water” = “Spirit,” then Jesus is saying we must be born of “the Spirit and the Spirit,” but the same objection could be lodged against Isa 44:3, where the prophet uses “water” as a poetic metaphor for Spirit in parallel. Perhaps Jesus is borrowing the prophets’ metaphor in a similar Hebraic parallelism.

Or Jesus’ phrase could be a hendiadys, a figure of speech common in koine Greek in which two nouns or two verbs are joined by “and” with the intention that they be read as a single noun or verb. One author gives a couple of examples[8]

Webster’s defines this figure well: “the expression of an idea by the use of two usually independent words connected by ‘and’ (“nice and warm”) instead of the usual combination of an independent word and its modifier (“nicely warm”). In Hendiadys the two words are the same part of speech (i.e., two nouns, two verbs, etc.), and if they are nouns, they are always in the same case. The figure Hendiadys places equal emphasis on both words conjoined by the “and,” whereas if the concept was rendered literally, such as “nicely warm,” the emphasis of the phrase is on the noun, not the modifier. …

Isaiah 1:13 (NIV)

Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

The Hendiadys in the last phrase of this verse has made it hard to translate, but the meaning is clear, and the NIV has done a superb job of bringing that meaning into English: The last phrase is rendered more literally in the ESV: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” God usually desires solemn assemblies, but in this case the people were so evil that the solemn assemblies they held were corrupted and evil. The figure Hendiadys recognizes and emphasizes that the people were holding assemblies, but also emphasizes that those assemblies were wicked.

Luke 21:15 (ESV)

“for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.”

It is obvious that this verse is a figure of speech, because everyone has a mouth and therefore has no need for God to give them one. Actually, there are a couple figures of speech in this verse, and we will unpack them one at a time. “A mouth and wisdom” is the figure Hendiadys for “a wise mouth,” but the figure is better than the literal statement because saying someone has a “mouth” places emphasis on the fact that there will be much speaking. Someone may have a “wise mouth” but not say much, but someone who has a “mouth” says a lot. This is one of the instances where the literal expression “mouth and wisdom” and the figurative expression “wise mouth” are both true. God will inspire much speaking and give wisdom to the speaker as well. Perhaps, “I will give you a mouth, indeed, a wise mouth,” would be a good rendition. Also, “mouth” is not literal, but is put by the figure Metonymy for the words spoken by the mouth, so in teasing out the figures a little further, a good translation might be: “I will give you (many) words, indeed, wise words.”

Thus, “water and Spirit” could mean “the Spirit, indeed, the Spirit that is the water of prophecy.” Or it could be “water that is Spirit,” consistent with Isaiah’s use and the usage of several other OT prophets. Jesus would be using “water” to be certain Nicodemus recalled the many OT passages that speak of the Spirit as water to be poured out from heaven when the Kingdom arrives.

This interpretation nicely sets the stage for “living water” in the very next chapter, which would otherwise not be defined until three chapters later.


[4] Paraphrased in the NIV as “born of human descent.” The KJV has “born … of blood.”

[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 216-217. “In due course I turned away from the view that the water is simply the amniotic fluid that flows away during the process of birth, because I could find no ancient text that spoke of birth as ‘out of water.’” See also D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Boston: Baker Book House, Inc., 1996), 41.

[6] Beasley-Murray, 230.

[7] Guy N. Woods, in his 1989 commentary on the Gospel of John in the Gospel Advocate commentary series argues that “living water” refers to the word of God, even though John himself says “living water” refers to the Holy Spirit.

[8] “Figures of Speech – Hendiadys (Two for One),” Truth or Tradition?

[9] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 191–192.

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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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20 Responses to Born of Water: John 3:1-8, Part 2

  1. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    After reading Carson, I wonder how significantly Ezekiel 36:24-27 informs this passage from John.

    24 For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.
    25 I will clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.
    26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
    27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

    Carson states, “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.”

    I’m wrestling with the obvious Calvinistic implications that Carson likely has in mind, but he may be on the right track, absent several petals of the TULIP.

  2. Price Futrell says:

    JTB himself, speaking of what he was doing with baptism, says it was for repentance.. Paul confirms…. Then Jesus tells the disciples that unlike John who used water, He is going to “baptize” them, or immerse them with the Spirit… We never hear of the disciples being immersed post resurrection… And yet we all assume they were saved as saved could be….. the water seems symbolic but the immersion of the Spirit is very real… Whatever. It’s a command so be baptized.

  3. Jesse Winn says:

    goodness, usually these articles from this site stay away from generalizations and speculations, but I lovingly and humbly say that I believe the last 2 articles have not been so fair to the text. I’m certain I have my issues as well. Oh well, I guess this is a “agree to disagree” situation.

  4. Dwight says:

    Kevin, I had never considered Ezek.36, but it does speak of the concept of water and spirit that is similar to John 3. The water cleanses, always had, and God places His Spirit in us. We are unclean and unholy before God before we are washed and made acceptable, which was the purpose of the cleansings.

  5. Ray Downen says:

    What is clear from Acts 2 is that THE APOSTLES (not just Peter) thought that the Spirit was God’s gift to those believers in Jesus who had turned to Him as LORD and had been immersed in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus baptized ONLY HIS APOSTLES with the Spirit. The apostles baptized IN WATER as Jesus had commanded was to be done. God’s gift of His Spirit was given to those who had heard and obeyed the gospel by being baptized INTO CHRIST.

    Note that Jesus baptized ONLY HIS APOSTLES. And God baptized NO ONE. But those who heard and obeyed the gospel received God’s GIFT of His Spirit along with the remission of their sins.

  6. Price says:

    Not true Ray. Peter said that Cornelius and the large group with him received the Spirit just like they did. He said it 3 times.

  7. David says:


    I think you are on the right track. Ezek 36: 24-30 exactly describes the NT idea of the rebirth that comes through the Holy Spirit. The cleansing, the new heart, and the following of God’s laws.

    And It is very likely that Jesus would have referred Nicodemus to the OT prophecies. These prophecies were what was on the Jews’ minds at this time. The prophecies were mainly concerning the Prophet/ King who was to appear, The everlasting kingdom of Israel that God was to establish, and the out pouring of the Spirit.

    Nicodemus told Jesus that he suspected he was a person sent from God, Jesus replied, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”. Jesus was not abruptly changing the subject. He was fitting the prophecies together for Nicodemus. Jesus was owning up to being the Prophet/King, that the kingdom was at hand, and that the Spirit was about to be poured out on those would enter the kingdom.

  8. Acts 8:36 in a few versions:

    Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” NKJV.

    As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” NLT.

    And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” ESV.

    Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?” NET.

    As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” NIV.

    As per this article and the quoted “scholars”, it would mean that the Ethiopian eunuch suddenly saw the Spirit and wanted to be immersed in Him! How silly (ridiculous) is that contention! I am a simple learner and to me, water means water (not the Spirit). Of course there is a “spirit” in which one may be immersed. Jesus and the Apostles meant what they said.

    As per this article, Acts 10:47, 48 (NKJV)

    Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

    would appear strange, (substituting water with Spirit), “Can anyone forbid the ‘Spirit’, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit…he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.”

    See how silly and ridiculous it looks and sounds. Water is water and Spirit is Spirit and “water and Spirit” means water and Spirit. That is how simple folks see it. “Scholar” may try to confuse us, but they are a confused lot.

    Borrowing the words of Festus, “Scholar, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!”

  9. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:


    Water is water and Spirit is Spirit and “water and Spirit” means water and Spirit. That is how simple folks see it.

    Maybe. Maybe not. I wish it were as simple as you suggest. “Water” may indeed mean just plain old H2O in John 3 with no additional significance whatsoever. But that is not likely the case. Christ’s use of ὕδωρ hydōr has a deeper significance. The 1st century Jew would have heard that sentence very differently from the 21st century Gentile from the U.S. Our task is to set aside our cultural arrogance (not referring to you), and attempt to hear the scriptures as the original audience would have heard them. It’s not always a simple task. For example, Leon Morris in his NICNT commentary on the Gospel of John refers to Rabbinic sources in which “water” was used in reference to male semen. I am not suggesting that this is how Christ uses the term in this particular passage, but we do need to be cautious about our tendency to just accept the “plain language” of the Bible (again, not your comment).

  10. buckeyechuck says:

    If you look at the John 3:3-5 text in isolation and as a conversation, rather than using all Biblical references to the words “water” and “Spirit” and the possible definitions thereof, it looks a little clearer at least to me. Jesus starts with a very simple statement “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Nicodemus responds with a very logical question (to him) “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!” My paraphrase : I’ve been born once, Lord. How could I do that again? Jesus then replies with a clarification and direct answer to Nicodemus question. “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” It seems to me that Jesus repeated Nicodemus understanding that physical birth would refer to “water” and then emphasized the real second birth is by the “Spirit”. Jesus repeats the contrast in verse 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The NASB also uses a capital “S” for spirit. It seems the only answer to the correct analysis of “spirit” lies in which manuscript you review as well as the contextual meaning. It makes sense to me is that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit. There is no indication that Nicodemus left the conversation with Jesus with a clear understanding of what Jesus was talking about in this rebirth.

    Jesus and his disciples administered John’s baptism of repentance in John 3:22 ff. It isn’t the same baptism we see the apostles and disciples administering after the resurrection. This is why Apollos required another baptism proclaiming the name of Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts 19:4.

    Certainly water baptism is discussed and commanded throughout the New Testament in Acts and the Epistles as Jay and all commenters have said above. It is absolutely part of salvation, but is not salvation in and of itself. I agree with Jay when he says that the differentiator between the lost and the saved for those of us in the Church age is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Certainly Acts 2:38 clarifies and states that truth. It seems to me that Jesus was teaching Nicodemus about that same thing in John 3.

    A question not addressed, unless I missed it somewhere, is that we don’t know whether Nicodemus had received John’s baptism which was the only baptism being administered at the time. Nicodemus was not baptized after his conversation with Jesus as far as the text discloses, so if it were referring to water baptism as we understand it from the teachings of Peter on Pentecost, then why was not one administered here? How is it that Nicodemus could be born again based on the conversation in John 3? It seems logical to me that when Peter spoke on Pentecost, Nicodemus may have been present. He would have more clearly understood about the spiritual rebirth and receiving the Holy Spirit as described by Peter in Acts 2:38.

  11. buckeyechuck says:

    It seems I am a bit behind in my reading of this series. Some of my points were addressed in the next few posts.

  12. Dwight says:

    I think Nicodemus would have been more familiar with the concept of water baptism as opposed to Spirit baptism and especially with the concept of birth. Sometimes we don’t read it as if we are in the moment or in the story as a Jews, but as it was written in retrospect. We have to ask what was Nicodemus capable of seeing at the moment, not what should Nicodemus have connected this all to which would come later down the line in understanding and prophecy. Hindsight is 20/20, but sight is often myopic and 20/600.

  13. David says:

    If Jesus used the word “born” in a metaphorical sense, I don’t know why he wouldn’t have used the word “water” in a metaphorical sense. There is precedence for using water metaphorically to mean the Spirit in the OT, and later on Jesus, himself, does the same thing. I would say there is as much Biblical support for “water” to mean the Spirit, as there is for “born” to mean a spiritual change.

  14. Price Futrell says:

    I am not as confident as some are about what exactly Jesus meant or what Nicodemus would have understood… But when I consider that he was a Pharisee AND a member of the Sanhedrin it’s fairly easy to conclude that this man was no doofus…He would have been totally up to date on The Law including all the various interpretations and religious traditions of the day and how they got passed down, etc., etc. He’s having a theological conversation with Jesus as opposed to just shooting the breeze. The thing that causes me pause in accepting any “clear cut” understanding from this passage is that Nicodemus is confused. And if Jesus’ response was to help him have a better understanding of what being born again was, then why would Jesus insert a veiled description of water immersion which up to that point immersion in water wasn’t in the conversation ? My take on it is that Jesus is correcting Nicodemus’ understanding by saying that not only is one born naturally, but they must be born supernaturally to enter the Kingdom…. But wiser men than me have differing opinions…

  15. Dwight says:

    David, it makes no sense to me that water would be a stand-in for Spirit, when he says, “water and Spirit”, it is redundant and meaningless if that is the case.
    Price if we follow that thought, then Spirit must be metaphorical also, but of what…maybe water.
    I don’t think the born is metaphorical or the water or the Spirit. I think in a real sense we are gennao- born, begat, bore, brought forth, delivered.
    I John 5:1 “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him.” the same John who wrote John.
    One who believes will respond, just like those in Acts 2 and will be born just like in Acts 2 as a new creation as described in Romans.

  16. Price Futrell says:

    Dwight… I disagree… Jesus’ next sentence brings clarity to what he meant.. flesh/Spirit… Makes it simple to understand…Remove the need to try and make the passage about baptism and it’s not that complicated of a passage… The focus is never on the water… the focus is on birth.. human and spiritual… IMO… Again, why would Jesus bring a new topic into the discussion to try and clear up the confusion of a theologically knowledgeable person when immersion in water wasn’t even in view ? Makes no sense. Some just wish to try and cement the idea that “born again” means being baptized…

  17. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    If I follow you correctly, you make an excellent point. Up to this point in time, Nicodemus would only have known John’s baptism — if that. If he heard “baptism” when Jesus said “water,” then he heard “John’s baptism” not “baptism in the name of Jesus Messiah.” Hence, “baptism” only makes sense if we assume a highly sacramental point of view, that is, that Jesus is talking about modes of administration (immersion) rather than a rite not yet revealed. But this assumes that the power is in the water rather than the name — and I’m confident Jesus and Paul and other NT writers would strongly disagree. To me, it’s unthinkable that Jesus sees all baptisms the same.

    I guess “water and the Spirit” could mean “John’s baptism + receipt of the Spirit” but this still overlooks the name of Jesus Messiah — and given that we’re told as part of the same discourse that salvation comes by faith in Jesus it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would’ve been referring to John’s baptism in 3:5.

    We’re forced to imagine Jesus expecting Cornelius to have heard “baptism but not John’s baptism but rather a baptism not yet revealed in which the Spirit is also given” which seems a lot to ask.

    On the other hand, in John 4 and John 7, Jesus announces a future receipt of the Spirit, as “living water”, with no reference to himself except that he’ll be the one to provide it. And to claim the power to give the Spirit is to claim to be God.

    Thus, if “water and the Spirit” means something like “spiritual water” or “water that is spirit” then it’s just another metaphor for “living water” or the “Spirit” except one that even easier to find in the OT than “living water” (which is there but far less obvious).

    Jesus very quickly turns the conversation to the fact that faith in him is required (v. 13-15). This has to fit with whatever Jesus meant to communicate in 3:5. And it works well enough if Jesus is claiming to give the Spirit (as will say in chapters 4 and 7), because in the OT the object of “faith” is always God. Hence, Jesus says, You must receive the Spirit. Nicodemus is confused. Jesus then says, You must have faith in me (because I’m YHWH, who gives the Spirit according to the prophets).

    It makes sense and is fair to Nicodemus.

    But “you must be immersed in water to receive the Spirit” doesn’t point to Jesus but to JTB. After all, to this point, the only baptism mentioned is John’s. This would have been utterly confusing.

  18. David says:


    Jay has answered for me in his post to BC. Jay also addresses the redundancy of “water and Spirit” in his updated book on baptism he posted a week or so ago. The manner of speaking is called a hendiadys. I’m sure you have spoken with the same type of redundancy in saying the pledge to the flag. The flag stands in for the republic, but you pledge to both the flag and the republic.

  19. Larry Cheek says:

    JTB’s baptism was not his! Men have labeled it with him, but the source and authority of the baptism was God! John was only a commissioned messenger. We would never allow any missionary sent out from a body of Christians to be credited with the message or any physical portion of his work as being something belonging to or authored by him. That is exactly what men are doing to John the Baptist. In essence the Baptism that John administered was provided by The Word and God, and therefore has equality with any directives and commands from God. The baptism that John administered was an immersion in water and that same act is exactly what was administered on Pentecost. The results of the immersion was changed after Jesus’ sacrifice but the action was the same. Jesus also approved of the act by submitting to it, knowing full well that what is was doing for the others it had no power to do for him. In fact his only purpose to submit to this act was to fulfill all righteousness, basically approve this act for all who will follow him.

  20. Dwight says:

    John baptized not for himself or of himself, but rather for repentance to God and he taught Jesus, so repentance to Jesus. His baptism was not done in a vacuum or in glory to himself or for the sake of just baptism. It all pointed to Christ. No one ever argued that John’s baptism was wrong (for repentance), because it wasn’t, but it wasn’t sufficient for salvation. Just as John was a forerunner to Christ, John’s baptism was a forerunner to Christ baptism. Just as the tent/tabernacle was a forerunner to the Temple and then to the person as the Temple, which looked back to the Temple of God.
    David, the flag is designed to be a stand in for the nation it represents, but water not so for the HS.
    Water had and has multiple uses, drinking to live, washing to cleanse, baptism to convert.
    When Jesus said “I am the living water”, he was relaying that he sustained life, which was his point. Is the water “of the water and the Spirit” baptism, maybe not, but the implications are that one comes from some process that includes both and not just one.
    Going back to Nicodemus, if he had heard of John who was converting to Christ through immersion and who hadn’t, and if he knew about birth and who didn’t, and if he knew about the cleansing that a Jew had to do before God in purification, then Nicodemus would have some context for water. It would be realized in the future, but Jesus was laying groundwork and a frame for that.

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