Christianity 201

January 20, 2018

Born of Water and the Spirit

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

Many of you are familiar with this phrase, found in a statement Jesus makes to Nicodemus in John 3. We found these comments on this at Biblical Hermeneutics. We’ve included the first two answers, but you may click on the title below to read more. The first answer is reiterated in #5 below.

What does it mean to be “born of water”?

In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the kingdom one must be “born of water and the Spirit”. How is this phrase understood? Is it a single construct (i.e. one birth of both water and Spirit)? Or are two births in view (one of water and one of Spirit)? And what does it mean to be born of water?


“Born of water” does not stand alone here, but rather inseparably collocated with “and spirit”. Just as “raining cats and dogs” refers to one rain, or “this item is our bread and butter” refers to one mainstay item, “water and the spirit” refers to one birth.

In other words, we are not to take this is “first you must be born of water and then of spirit”; rather, “unless one is born of water and spirit” in v5 is parallel to “unless one is born again” in v3.

Although the phrase “born of water and of the spirit” is not found in the Old Testament, we do see water and spirit both tied to personal and covenantal renewal, notably in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from fall your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)

Here water is used to explicitly symbolize cleansing from impurity, and spirit for the transformation of the heart to full obedience. All that Jesus has done here is add the concept of birth to further explain what he had said in v3.


Actually, after researching this more, there are multiple possible translations of this

1. Christian Baptism

C. H. Dodd reflects this interpretation when he asserts that

“the instructed Christian reader would immediately recognize a reference to Baptism, as the sacrament through which the Spirit was given to believers, and by which they were initiated into that new order of life described as the Kingdom of God, which was historically embodied in the Church.”
Dodd, Interpretation, p. 311.

Essentially, the idea is being “born of water” would have been immediate recognizable as meaning baptism. And since Jesus had been baptizing, it could be understood as this baptism.

2. John’s Baptism

The argument here is that when Nicodemus heard “born of water”, he would immediately think of John’s baptisms, since he had been causing a stir throughout Israel. Support from this comes from here:

John 1:23 (NIV)
I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit’

The argument is that John baptized with water but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit.

3. Natural (Flesh) Birth

This popular and well-thought out argument is supported by the quote from Nicodemus himself as well as later parallelism of Jesus.

John 3:4 (NIV)
How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

The parallels can be drawn directly from Jesus two contiguous sentences:

John 3:5-6 (NIV)
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Clearly, being “born of water and the spirit” relates directly to bineg born of “flesh” and “spirit” in verse 6.

Finally, it gains biblical support in that the term “water” has been used in reference to female organs in Song of Songs 4:12-15.

4. Word of God

This theory maintains that there are two elements required for a person to be “born again”: the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

Support for this theory are found in the following two verses:

James 1:18 (NIV)
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

1 Peter 1:23 (NIV)
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.

5. Double metaphor

Proponents of this theory state that Being “born of the water and of the spirit” are actually two ways to say the same thing. The argument is that Jesus said that you must be “born again” in previous verses and then “born of water and the spirit” in later verses. These two parallels, the argument goes, shows that being “born of water” is simply another way to say being “born again”.

6. Purification

This idea states that water and spirit are purification that must take place in order to be born again. This can be illustrated by the use of water in purification rituals. Furthermore, support for this can be found in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NIV)
25 I will sprinkle 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.

This verse shows the connection between water and the spirit in purification and the new birth.

Summary

There are six traditional views of how to view this. Two views stand out as the most likely: The natural birth (#3) and the Purificaiton (#6). These two views have the strongest support for them, both biblically and traditionally. The other views each have strong problems with their views. (I add them solely for completeness.)


The answers which follow are also worth considering. Nobody said Biblical interpretation was easy! If you have time, especially consider the one which followed these. Once again, here’s the link.

1 Comment »

  1. Very informative lesson. All these years, I had understood (and taught) Jesus was referring to the two births we must experience (author’s #3 understanding). However, the authors listing of #6 (purification) now seems more plausible. Jesus always used our natural, physical experiences to teach us spiritual truth. So, the reference to birth as a start to ‘life’ makes sense. He is talking about a real human experience here and now. Nicodemus can only reference his own physical birth as a frame of reference but Jesus is teaching about a completely different birth, still experienced in the here and now. As scripture teaches elsewhere, this new birth (or second birth) begins when we repent of our sin and receive the Spirit of God entering into eternal life. This is an activity only God can perform in our lives, no human activity included (other than assent of will). So it seems that the second birth is one into eternal life with God (which occurs after birth into physical life). Therefore Jesus’s reference to being born of water and the Spirit seems to really refer to the same event experienced after our natural birth (which is birth into the sin nature passed on by Adam resulting in death). To escape the inevitable condemnation of the sinful nature, we must be purified and regenerated by the Spirit in the second birth that only comes via faith in Jesus.

    As an aside to this, a further reading of this same passage in John 3 shows Jesus being ‘surprised’ that Nicodemus, a teacher, does not understand what He, Jesus, is referring to. I gather from this exchange God has made understanding the importance of the new birth available to all people. As He says in Isaiah, “Come now let us reason together”, says the Lord. “Though your sins are as scarlet (result of natural birth), I will make them white as snow (result of new birth)”.

    Comment by Tim Hillenbrand — January 21, 2018 @ 7:57 am | Reply


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