You Must Be Born of Water? (John 3:5)

This passage of scripture has always been slightly confusing to me, because it seems to insinuate that unless a person is baptized in water they cannot be saved (as in get to heaven after physical death), but after some scriptural inquiry I have managed to reach, what I believe to be, a tenable conclusion.

John 3:1-5

In order to get a basic understanding of the remark made by Jesus in John 3:5, we must first look at the beginning of the discourse between the Lord and Nicodemus, verse one reads:

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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 miracles that You do unless God is with him.”  John 3:1-2

We can see that Nicodemus is somewhat astonished at the miracles performed by Jesus, this amazement must have been in response to the miracle he performed at the wedding at Cana in the previous verse, where Jesus converted six vessels of water into wine (John 2-we can assume that Nicodemus was either also attending the wedding or someone who attended reported these events to him). So in response to Nicodemus’s statement concerning his miracles Jesus said:

 “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

In order to understand this response we must ask ourselves two questions: what does Jesus mean when he says one must be born again? And what does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”? I’ll tackle the second question first seeing as the proceeding verses will aid me in attempting to explain the first question.

In the New Testament, The Kingdom of God seems to be spoken of in three distinct ways, Jesus emphasises 1 of 3 things or all three (you can see this usage in his parables):

  1. A Person- Jesus himself (Matt 3:2)
  2. A Power- The in breaking authority of God over the natural world (Luke 10:9; 11:20; Matt 12:28; Psalm 145:11-13)
  3. A People- The subjects of the kingdom  (Matt 8:11; Luke28)

Typically (especially at the beginning of his ministry), Jesus refers to the Kingdom as a present power or authority forcefully breaking into the lives of men (Matt 11:12). This power signifies an authority over both the natural and spiritual world by means of the spirit of God, this is why the working of miracles was an integral part of Christ’s message concerning the Kingdom, they were a practical demonstration of the in-breaking reality of God’s rulership or authority on the earth (Matt 12:28: Luke 11:20) thus affirming the message preached (John 10:25; 10:38)

So what I believe is implicit to Nicodemus’s statement is the question, how exactly do I operate in this kind of spiritual authority? We need to remember that Nicodemus was a distinguished teacher, and a respected leader in Israel (John 3:10), he would of known what the scriptures say, he just wouldn’t of had a clue as to what they really meant. So when Jesus responds by saying “unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God”, I don’t believe is referring to place or a realm in the future, but a present reality of spiritual authority, because Jesus very rarely talks about the kingdom as a future expectation to be observed but as a present imperative, for example; Jesus remarks in Luke 17:20-21, after having healed the 10 leapers, that “The kingdom of God comes not with outward observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” So in basic terms, Jesus is saying that Nicodemus can’t even begin to operate in this kind of spiritual authority unless he undergoes the second birth, which is the spiritual regeneration of the human heart.

The statement in John 3:3 completely startles Nicodemus, thus he responds:

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” John 3:4

and Jesus responds:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” John 3:5

Nicodemus’s response shows how earthly minded he was, and how he could not grasp what was being said, so Jesus goes on to clarify his previous statement.

Having attempted to explain in verses 1-4 I now come to the prime statement of inquiry in verse 5. There have been differing opinions with regard to what it means to be “born of water”; there are two prevailing views, one of which states that this phrase refers to water baptism and the other states that it refers solely to the spiritual cleansing through regeneration and that water baptism has nothing to do with it. When I come across two opposing views like this an old adage often comes to mind, which goes, “The River of life flows between the valley of two extremes”. Thus, I believe that Jesus is referring to both water baptism and spiritual cleansing through regeneration. To say that water baptism has absolutely nothing to do with it is to completely disregard one of the major themes of the first few chapters of John, which is water baptism.

When Jesus uses the phrase ‘born of water’, I believe he is not talking about the act of water baptism in and of itself but what the act symbolizes, which is a cleansing from the filth of sin. 1 Peter 3:21 makes it clear that water baptism is a symbol or figure of the cleansing of the conscience toward God:

“The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ”

Water and spiritual cleansing- examples from the Old Testament

John 3:5 can also be cross referenced Ezekiel 36:25 as well Ezekiel 16:4-9 which describe the spiritual cleansing that God provided for the nation of Israel. When studied more carefully you realise that the concept of cleansing with water is prefigured elsewhere in the Old Testament, we can go back as far as the book of Leviticus:

“And the priest shall go forth out of the camp; and the priest shall look, and, behold, if the plague of leprosy be healed in the leper; Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop: And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water: As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water: And he shall sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose into the open field. And he that is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water, that he may be clean: and after that he shall come into the camp, and shall tarry abroad out of his tent seven days. But it shall be on the seventh day, that he shall shave all his hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows, even all his hair he shall shave off: and he shall wash his clothes, also he shall wash his flesh in water, and he shall be clean” Leviticus 3:9

From this text we can see where the concept of ‘sprinkling with water’ (Ezekiel 36:25) actually comes from. Albeit Ezekiel 36 is describing a spiritual cleansing it was prefigured by a physical act, in which lepers (leprosy being a picture of sin) were cleansed.  So this concept would not have been abstract in the people of Israel’s thinking.

If we also look at Numbers 19:9-20, we see the phrase ‘waters of separation’ (From which the Jewish mikveh, and I believe baptism, both derive from); these waters signified a purification for sin, so you can see the profound spiritual implications of physical water given in the scriptures.

Another example of water being used to represent spiritual cleansing would be that of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5, where he was told to dip himself 7 times in the Jordan river in order to be completely cleansed of his leprosy.

If we look at John 3:5 in this light I believe it’s evident that Jesus is referring to baptism but not the act in and of itself but what it signifies (as previously mentioned). If you look at the surrounding chapters you cannot deny that water baptism is a major theme. Chapter 1 informs us of John the Baptist’s ministry, as well as alluding to Jesus’ baptism. In Chapter 3, immediately after the discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus and his disciples themselves also engage in the practice of water baptism (3:22). At this John is also carrying out his water baptism ministry (3:23), his disciples are angry at the fact people are now seeking the baptism of Jesus rather than his (3:25-26) John’s response indicates that Jesus’ baptismal ministry is more important than his (This becomes apparent because in chapter 4 we learn that Jesus gives’ living water’ that leads to eternal life, John 4:10, 13-14).

We can also see from John 3:5 that the second birth is a twofold process in which encompasses both forgiveness (a cleansing of sin- figured in baptism) and regeneration (a renewing by the Holy Spirit).

In Him.

Date : 30/11/-0001    Author : Richard Adu-Ntow

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