[This is taken from Born of Water, my book on baptism. It’s edited, but not greatly changed. But after I loaded this into the blogging software, I re-thought my position. And so I thought it might be helpful to post both the “before” and “after” posts. The “after” post will be in four parts, because we’ll have to delve into some rich, unfamiliar, and to me, interesting material.]
John’s gospel says very little explicitly about Christian baptism. Of course, there are passages that likely refer to Christian baptism, using other words, as we’ll consider in more detail.
John the Baptist’s testimony
John doesn’t record Jesus’ baptism directly, but rather records John’s description of it — and John uses the event to identify Jesus as the Messiah —
(John 1:29-34 ESV) 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John says he was sent for the purpose of revealing Jesus as Messiah (v. 31). Again, the description of Christian baptism is “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (v. 33) in contrast to “I came baptizing with water” (vv. 31, 33).
The only other references to “baptism” in John are references to John’s baptism or to Jesus having his disciples baptize, as we considered in an earlier post. That’s it. Except …
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.
While many, including myself, have argued that “born of water” refers to physical birth, I believe that the stronger case is that it refers to water baptism. 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. However, I’ve been persuaded by more careful study that “born of water” refers to baptism, for the following reasons:
a. The Church Fathers are unanimous in interpreting John 3:5 as a reference to water baptism, as well—
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 71:1 [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]).
(I bring this material to the readers’ attention, not because these men have authority or a secret revelation, but because they read the scriptures unbiased by the debates triggered by the Reformation, particularly the writings of Zwingli and Calvin. Moreover, if “water” symbolized human birth to the ancient Greek or Jewish ear, you’d think they’d know.)
b. 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.” 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. 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.
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’.
Another interpretation sometimes offered is that “water” refers to the Spirit, referring to Isa. 44:3 and John 7:37. However, John 7:37 uses “living water” to refer to the Spirit. Isa. 44:3 might use “water” to refer to the Spirit but could equally well be interpreted to refer to blessings in general.
Ultimately, this interpretation fails because Jesus surely intended to be understood by Nicodemus. Nicodemus was likely familiar with the baptism of John, but was not likely to have understood “water” as meaning the Holy Spirit—it was hardly a conventional metaphor at the time. Anyway, why would Jesus refer to be being born of “Spirit and Spirit”?
In conclusion, the baptism interpretation has the stronger weight. The Greek supports this view. And there is simply no evidence that a First Century Jew might have understood “water” as a reference to physical birth.
On the other hand, I can’t leave this passage without noting that virtually no denominations refuse baptism with water. The issue is hardly ever over whether to administer water baptism, but at what age or in what amount or with what understanding. We should not confuse the necessity for water baptism with related but different questions.
 Catholic Answers, http://www.catholic.com/ANSWERS/tracts/_bornagn.htm.
 Paraphrased in the NIV as “born of human descent.” The KJV has “born … of blood.” It is literally “of bloods.”
 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.’” D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Boston: Baker Book House, Inc., 1996), 41.
 Beasley-Murray, 230.