Interpreting John 3:5: “Born of Water and Spirit”
This passage has been interpreted several different ways. Some believe that the “water” mentioned in this text is Johns baptism. Some believe it is Christian baptism. Some even believe it is referring to the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus of a baby, some believee it is the Spirit.
There are many different views of this verse, but most all of them agree that whatever it is talking about is essential to enter into the kingdom of God. “Except (“unless”) one is born again, he cannot be a citizen of the kingdom of God.” This is why it is important to see how to be born again. What does it mean to be born of “water and of Spirit?”
While interpreting this passage, it is important to know the genre to which it belongs. Obviously, this passage is in the Gospel of John, but more specifically, it would be a narrative and, to some degree, historical. Interpreting historical writing revolves around culture. Looking at narrative context revolves around the literary content. Both of these things are essential for proper exegesis (that means taking things OUT of the text as opposed to putting things INTO the text). This article will look at the culture, the content/context and then conclude by putting the pieces together.
First, it would be wise to see what the original readers of John would have thought when they heard “pharisee” in John 3. A pharisee is a teacher of the Mosaic law. They served as rabbis, teachers, and worship leaders. Jews went to them when they had a spiritual question because they were in constant study of the Law (law of Moses and the prophets of the old testament). Ezra was one of the first of these men. He was a lawyer; a studier of the words of God during the Jewish “restoration movement” after returning from Babylonian captivity. The issue wasn’t the principle of restoration, but rather a misunderstanding of God’s context that led to extremes. The common Jew expected such a person to know the facts and understand the principles.
There were many who believed in Jesus, but because of their emphasis on subjective facts, they missed the objective motive of His message. The Jews believed they were born into salvation, but Jesus had a different message to bring. Jesus taught that the Gospel of the kingdom of God was for all, both Jew and gentile. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin which was a political council for the Jews. He was also referred to by Jesus as “the” teacher (rabbi) as opposed to “a” teacher. This leads the reader to assume he was of fame; explaining why he would want to meet with Jesus at night so to not bring attention to himself by meeting publicly with this revolutionist.
The Old Testament never explicitly says that “the kingdom of God” will come in a spiritual sense, but it does imply it. It says that there will be a different type of covenant with God’s “kingdom people.” Nicodemus would have at least understood that there was a kingdom coming, and he would have probably understood that it would have something to do with a spiritual afterlife. The word that is translated “again” (from “born again”) can also be translated “from above”, however, it depends on the context. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus when He says that one must be “born again.” This is most likely because of the Jewish understanding of being born INTO the kingdom in a physical way.
A lot of times, when one is doing exegesis, they will find that the historical culture and the literary context overlaps. This is to be expected, seeing how the text is telling a story and the story has a historical culture as its setting. For the sake of length, I have decided that if there happens to be something historical that is already mentioned in the text, that I will mention it in the “literary context” section.
The first few verses of chapter three seem to suggest that it is a new thought block that holds its own context. Even if one believes that chapter two seems to be connected with chapter three, he would still have to admit that it would only fit with the end of chapter two and not the entire chapter. The end of chapter two is Jesus in the temple. He is in the presence of pharisees. He makes claims about His power that upsets the men there. Some of the last verses suggest that Jesus knew the hearts of all men. This concept of knowing man’s heart could plausibly be a connecting concept between the two contexts of chapters two and three.
It seems that the end of chapter three is a different context (22 and following). The end of chapter three could conceivably be connected to the beginning of chapter three. This is thought to be the case by some because of the mention of water in the earlier verses in chapter three. Baptism was looked at as a renewal and rebirth. So it is thought that Jesus was possibly referring to baptism when He mentioned “born of water” in this context. However, from my understanding, it seems that the beginning of chapter three (1-21) is a context to itself.
Putting the Pieces Together
After discussing the historical and literary context, there is enough information presented to start the interpretation process. This will be the concluding section, and the correct interpretation will be left up to the reader of the paper. There are three major interpretations concerning this passage in John three. The focus of this paper is the meaning of “born of water and of Spirit” because of its importance. “Unless” one does whatever “this” is, he cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.
The conversation starts with Nicodemus coming at night into the presence of Jesus. He has a conversation with Jesus and refers to Him as a rabbi. They have discussion about spiritual matters and the kingdom of God, but eventually they speak about how to enter into said kingdom. Jesus said that unless (or “except”) one is born again he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Nicodemus assumes Jesus is speaking of reentering into his mother’s womb. This is most likely hyperbole. However, it could be a legitimate question. He is saying that it would be impossible for him to be born physically again. Jesus answers by saying that one must be born of water and of Spirit. The next verse tells him that what is flesh comes from flesh and what is of Spirit comes from Spirit.
First, there is the view of Christian baptism. This is the most common view in the churches of Christ. The conversation here refers to salvation. “Unless” one does this he is not saved, he is not a child of God, and he is not part of the kingdom of God. The people who take the Christian baptism view look at this “of water and of Spirit” section as a future truth. In other words, according to this view, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that, in the future, these things will be so. When the new covenant is active, one must be physically immersed in water, and spiritually immersed by the Spirit in order to be a child of God, a citizen of the kingdom, and saved. So Jesus is telling a Jewish leader that Christian baptism is the way to salvation. Why would Jesus tell him about a future baptism when he wants to know how to be saved in the present?
Second, there is John’s baptism view. In the first chapter, John is baptizing for repentance toward the removal of sin. He is seen again at the end of chapter three. People with the view that “water and of Spirit” is concerning John’s baptism add chapter one and the end of chapter three to this context. This suggests that Jesus is speaking of a baptism looking forward to the Messiah. This would not make sense because Jesus has already come. There are three reasons why they push this view. (A) Verse seven says (speaking to Nicodemus) “you must be born again.” (B) If “water” isn’t referring to baptism then “what does ‘water’ mean?” (C) The principle concerning the importance of Christian baptism is still there.
Third is the view of being born again physically (maybe amniotic fluid). This suggests that the “water” is referring to a physical birth compared the the Spirit as water (as we see later in John). This is the view of the writer. Chapter one is several contexts away from chapter three. The end of chapter three seems to be a completely different context that is communicating a totally different point. There is nothing in the context of the beginning of chapter three that suggests that “water” is baptism. The context should determine the meaning. The context is speaking to Nicodemus about something he (and others) must do to enter into the kingdom. This view and John’s baptism are the only two conceivable things that could refer directly to him in this direct context. It has already been discussed why John’s baptism would not fit.
Jews were of the understanding that they were the only special ethnic race. They were the only ones who could belong to this kingdom of God. Nicodemus, being a Jewish leader, would especially believe this. He believed an individual was born into the kingdom of God. Jesus said that one must be born again. It is easy to see why he was confused when Jesus said that someone must be born again into this kingdom.
Jesus’ response was in the context of Nicodemus’ question. One cannot enter into his mother’s womb again so he cannot be born physically into the kingdom of “Jewish” people again. Flesh comes from flesh (vs. 6). Spirit comes from Spirit (vs. 6). It is almost as if Jesus is saying “You cannot only be born of water (physically into the Jewish race), but you have to be born of Spirit too.” This idea looks forward to John four when Jesus says that worshiping in Spirit and truth will look like. It also looks forward to the idea of a “spiritual Israel” like we see in Romans, Galatians, first Peter, and so on. It has always been appropriate for Jews to worship that way, and it has always been necessary to not only physically exist, but to Spiritually exist to enter into the kingdom of God. John seven and Ezekiel 47 give a great picture of the Spirit as water. Water is symbolic.
One might contend “What about people who have C-Sections?” (A) Special circumstances do not change truth. (B) A C-Section does not take away the point. “One must not only be physically born to be in God’s kingdom.” This truth is even so today. My argument is not that Jesus is saying “if you aren’t born you aren’t going to heaven” (like with abortions, etc.). My argument is that Jesus is saying to a Jew, who believes the new kingdom is physical, and for people physically nor into it, “you must not only be born physically, but spiritually.” In other words, the focus is not on being born physically. That is the entire point of Jesus. (I would also add that an unborn child is still in the image/Spirit of God anyways. But I digress.) (C) The amniotic fluid is still what the child is born from even in the case of C-Sections. This view does not take away the importance of baptism if we are honest with the context. However, the point seems to be that being born and doing legalistic things are not the only birth one needs. Everyone always has needed, and always will need to be born of Spirit as well. The passage may not be talking about amniotic fluid necessarily, but it certainly seems to suggest that citizenship isn’t about physical birth, but spiritual. It is more than physical birth, in other words. This is something that, in principle, can apply to Christians today, and would directly apply to Nicodemus then.
I think much more could said about interpreting the text. Also, I think it would be helpful to look at church history and how some of the church fathers interpreted the text. I want to be fair to that as well in a future article. But if we are speaking strictly from the data in Scripture, this article summarizes how I understand the flow of the John 3 conversation- Jesse