What does "water" refer to in John 3:5?

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    What does "water" refer to in John 3:5?

    John 3:5
    Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (NASB)

    Water refers to:
    a. Repentance (Matthew 3:8, 11)
    b. The Holy Spirit - The "and" (kai) is used epexegetically. Thus "water, namely Spirit" (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-26).
    c. The word of God (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 1:23)
    d. Christian water baptism
    e. Physical birth
    f. A combination of two or more from the above
    g. None of the above

    #2
    Hello Faber,

    I select F

    A couple of other suggestions: What does "Rebirth", "Born Again", "Born from Above" or "Regeneration" Mean? - Christforums

    Lemme share the pertinent clip directly:

    Many interpreters understand "water" here as the water of baptism, but such a reference, before Christian baptism was instituted, would have been meaningless to Nicodemus. Others find a reference to John's baptism, but Jesus nowhere makes John's baptism a requirement for salvation. Probably the statement refers to OT passages in which the terms "water" and "Spirit" are linked to express the pouring out of God's Spirit in the end times, and the purification and new life that flow from His arrival - Isaiah 32:15; 44:3, Ezekiel 36:25-27.
    In John 4:10 living or running water is employed figuratively as a reference to divine activity as well as in Jeremiah 2:13; Zech 14:8.

    I think we can actually draw from John 4 similar parallels between the conversation with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. In John 4:14 Jesus again refers to water springing or welling up which is consistent with divine origin. The Ezekiel 36:25-27 verses was an allusion Jesus made to Nicodemus, being a teacher of Israel, he should of known these OT passages. In any case whenever water is active or the phrase combines water and Spirit it is divine activity/origin that is expressed.

    God bless,
    William
    Comment>

      #3
      Any follow up Faber ?

      I see another thread touching upon this subject and was curious if you had anything more to share?

      God bless,
      William
      Comment>

        #4
        He is referring to the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins and for the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

        Rebirth is mentioned in Titus 3:5. Some translations use rebirth, the KJV says regeneration, but the Greek word is synonymous with rebirth.

        It is quite clear that Titus 3:5 is talking about baptism for the remission of sins.
        Comment>

          #5
          Originally posted by Faber View Post
          The word of God (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 1:23)
          As you will note in the thread on Soteriology, this is the correct interpretation for "water", and it has been further explained there.
          Comment>

            #6
            Originally posted by Lucas View Post
            As you will note in the thread on Soteriology, this is the correct interpretation for "water", and it has been further explained there.
            G'day Lucas,

            I think it important to address the context of John 3:5. Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, please address the OT allusions in which Nicodemus should of known. Jesus directly said to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?"

            Now I am not saying that these references are wrong, but what I am suggesting is that we are at an advantage because we have the NT Canon, Nicodemus had the OT which was completed a few hundred years before Christ walked upon the earth. Jesus was directly speaking to Nicodemus (the teacher of Israel) and I think that context needs be addressed here and any allusions made to the OT from which Nicodemus should of understood.

            God bless,
            William
            Comment>

              #7
              Originally posted by William View Post
              Any follow up Faber ?

              I see another thread touching upon this subject and was curious if you had anything more to share?

              God bless,
              William
              I believe "water" in John 3:5 is used epexegetically. That is "water namely Spirit" (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-27).

              Trist mentions Titus 3:5 but this liquid imagery of "washing" with "pouring" refers to the work of the Holy Spirit.
              Titus 3:5-6 (the underlined is mine)
              (5) He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
              (6) whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. (NASB)

              As I mentioned in the debate with Trist the Holy Spirit was "poured out" (Acts 10:45) upon the Gentiles before their water baptism (Acts 10:48). Thus this water that is poured to wash us can not refer to Christian water baptism.

              The same can be said concerning Ephesians 5:26 and Hebrews 10:22. God's love is poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).
              Notice as well that the Lord Jesus equated water with the Holy Spirit elsewhere in John's Gospel (John 4:10, 14; 7:37-39).


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              Comment>

                #8
                Originally posted by William View Post
                G'day Lucas,

                I think it important to address the context of John 3:5. Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, please address the OT allusions in which Nicodemus should of known. Jesus directly said to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?"
                G'Day William,

                Yes, we cannot ignore the OT allusions and the Lord would have known that Nicodemus was familiar with Ezekiel 36:25-28, where water is a metaphor for the regeneration by the Holy Spirit, as corroborated by John Gill's comment (below the Scripture):.

                25 Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.

                26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.

                27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.

                28 And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.


                John Gill's Commentary
                Verse 25. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you,.... Not baptismal water, as Jerome; an ordinance indeed of the Gospel, and to which the Jews will submit when converted; and which is performed by water, but not by sprinkling, nor does it cleanse from sin; and is administered by men, and is not an operation of God, as this is: rather the regenerating grace of the Spirit;

                I have already indicated in another thread that the metaphor of water can apply to BOTH the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. When Christ spoke to Nicodemus, He was addressing the world through that message and anticipating the propagation of the Gospel. So when Christ said "born of water AND of the Spirit" that was not redundancy, but distinguishing between the "water" of the Word and the "water" of the Holy Spirit. Both of those are the power of God unto salvation, and we have further corroboration by James that the Word of God brings about the New Birth when accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit (James 1:18).

                Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

                Comment>

                  #9
                  Originally posted by Faber View Post
                  Notice as well that the Lord Jesus equated water with the Holy Spirit elsewhere in John's Gospel (John 4:10, 14; 7:37-39).
                  Agreed, but that does NOT exclude the Word of God. This metaphor (as discussed above) applies to both.

                  That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word (Ephesians 5:26).
                  Comment>

                    #10
                    Originally posted by Lucas View Post
                    Agreed, but that does NOT exclude the Word of God. This metaphor (as discussed above) applies to both.

                    That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word (Ephesians 5:26).
                    I agree.

                    Comment>

                      #11
                      I marvel at the biblical ping pong you all must do to try and be right.

                      "I interpret it as water [namely] spirit"

                      I dust my feet off; no more will I speak on this forum. God is taking me elsewhere.

                      Amen.
                      Comment>

                        #12
                        The Bible sometimes reads "God and Father."

                        Does that mean "God" and "Father" are distinct or does it mean "God namely (the) Father"?

                        Furthermore, the "and" (kai) is used that way in Titus 3:5 for the Gentiles in Acts 10 definitely had the Holy Spirit "poured out" on them before their water baptism. Your heresy (and yes it is a heresy) had no answer to this in our previous debate and it had no response to it in this thread.


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                        Last edited by Faber; 07-10-2017, 07:43 AM.
                        Comment>

                          #13
                          Murray Harris: The non-repetition of ἐκ before πνεύματος suggests that "water" and "Spirit" form a single conceptual unit, "water-and-Spirit"; the two are aspects of a single comprehensive idea - a rebirth stemming from (ἐξ) the cleansing and renewing (cf. ὕδωρ) role of the Spirit (cf. Ezek 36:25-27). There maybe an allusion but not a reference to Christian baptism (John: Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, page 73).
                          Comment>

                            #14
                            Dr. Carson is always helpful. Here's what he has to say in his Commentary about John 3:5 if anyone is interested:

                            3:5. Whatever the nature and degree of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding, Jesus sets about to restate his challenge in slightly different form (v. 5), and with expansive comment (vv. 6–8). Again there is the solemn formula I tell you the truth (cf. notes on 1:51). This time no-one can enter the kingdom of God displaces ‘no-one can see the kingdom of God’ (v. 3). The meaning is much the same; inability even to ‘enter’ may be slightly stronger than inability to ‘see’ (i.e. experience). But the crucial difference in the wording is the change from ‘born anōthen’ (‘from above’ or ‘again’) to born of water and the Spirit. These words have generated a host of interpretations, the most important of which may be summarized as follows:

                            (1) Noting that v. 6 describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit, some interpreters propose that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ similarly refers to two births, one natural and the other supernatural. Natural procreation is not enough; there must be a second birth, a second begetting, this one of the Spirit. To support this view, ‘water’ has been understood to refer to the amniotic fluid that breaks from the womb shortly before childbirth, or to stand metaphorically for semen. But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water’, and the few that use ‘drops’ to stand for semen are rare and late. It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way (e.g. Song 4:12–13; Pr. 5:15–18), but none is tied quite so clearly to semen or to amniotic fluid as to make the connection here an obvious one. The Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression ‘of water and the Spirit’ cries out to be read as the equivalent of anōthen, ‘from above’, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two.

                            (2) Many find in ‘water’ a reference to Christian baptism (e.g. Brown, 2. 139–141). For Bultmann (pp. 138–139 n. 3) and others who have followed him, this is so embarrassing that he suggests the words ‘water and’ were not part of the original text, but added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. There is no textual support for the omission. At the other end of the spectrum, Vellanickal (pp. 170ff.) suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. Added or not, the simple word ‘water’ is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism, though there is little agreement amongst them on the relation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’. After all, reference is made in the near context to Jesus’ own baptismal ministry (3:22; 4:1), and John has connected water and Spirit in a baptismal context before (1:33, 34). Moreover John’s alleged interest in sacraments in ch. 6 encourages the suspicion he is making a sacramental allusion here. Many accordingly suggest the Spirit effects new birth through water (= baptism) (e.g. Ferrarro, Spirito, pp. 59–67).

                            Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. This part of the account, at least, becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. What is not always recognized is that this theory makes the Evangelist an extraordinarily incompetent story-teller, since in v. 10 he pictures Jesus berating Nicodemus for not understanding these things. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again: the entire focus is on the work of the Spirit (v. 8), the work of the Son (vv. 14–15), the work of God himself (vv. 16–17), and the place of faith (vv. 15–16). The analogy between the mysterious wind and the sovereign work of the Spirit (v. 8) becomes very strange if Spirit-birth is tied so firmly to baptism. Some doubt if there is any explicit reference to the eucharist in John 6 (cf. notes on 6:25ff.), casting doubt on the supposition that the Evangelist is deeply interested in sacramental questions. If he were, it is surpassingly strange that he fails to make explicit connections, neglecting even to mention the institution of the Lord’s supper. The Spirit plays a powerful role in John 14–16; 20:22, but there is no hint of baptism. Moreover the allusions to Jesus’ baptismal activity (3:22; 4:1), far from fostering sacramentalism, explicitly divert attention elsewhere (cf. notes on 3:25–26; 4:2; 6:22ff.). The conjunction of water and Spirit in 1:26, 33 is no support for this position, as there the two are contrasted, whereas in 3:5 they are co-ordinated.

                            The entire view seems to rest on an unarticulated prejudice that every mention of water evoked instant recognition, in the minds of first-century readers, that the real reference was to baptism, but it is very doubtful that this prejudice can be sustained by the sources. Even so, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a secondary allusion to baptism (cf. notes, below).

                            (3) A variation on this view is that ‘water’ refers not to Christian baptism but to John’s baptism (Godet, 2. 49–52; Westcott, 1. 108–109, and others). In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance, as important as it is, must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or, if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). ‘To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own [his] need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future’ (Dods, EGT, 1. 713).

                            The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9–10, 12), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of his rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? Moreover, as Dods sets out this proposed solution, it is assumed that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah who dispenses the Spirit, but it is far from clear that Nicodemus has progressed so far in his appreciation of Jesus.

                            (4) Several interpreters have argued that Jesus is arguing against the ritual washings of the Essenes (a conservative and frequently monastic Jewish movement), or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. But ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3).

                            (5) A number of less influential proposals have been advanced. Some have suggested that ‘water’ represents Torah (which can refer to the Pentateuch, or to the entire Jewish teaching and tradition about God, written and oral, or something between the two extremes). But though water is sometimes a symbol for Torah in rabbinic literature, ‘birth of water’ or the like does not occur. Moreover the stress in the Fourth Gospel is on the life-giving qualities of Jesus’ words (6:63); the Scriptures point to him (5:39). Odeberg (p. 50), Morris (pp. 216–218) and others have seen in ‘born of water and the Spirit’ an hendiadys for spiritual seed or semen, in contrast with semen of the flesh (v. 6). The entire expression refers to God’s engendering seed or efflux, cast over against the natural birth Nicodemus mentions in the preceding verse. But Odeberg’s supporting citations are both late and unconvincing, demanding that the reader (not to mention Nicodemus!) make numerous doubtful connections. Jesus’ indignation that Nicodemus had not grasped what he was saying (v. 10) suddenly sounds artificial and forced. Hodges has recently suggested that the two crucial terms, both without articles, should be rendered ‘water and wind’, together symbolizing God’s vivifying work, since Greek pneuma can mean ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’ (cf. notes on 3:8). But this fails to reckon with the fact that pneuma almost always means ‘spirit’ in the New Testament. Only very powerful contextual clues can compel another rendering: the presence or absence of the article is certainly not an adequate clue (cf. v. 8 where pneuma = ‘wind’ is articular). The word pneuma in the very next verse (v. 6) cannot easily be understood to mean anything other than ‘spirit’, and it is this consistent meaning that prepares the way for the analogical argument of v. 8, where wind symbolizes spirit.

                            The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind.

                            Although the full construction ‘born of water and of the Spirit’ is not found in the Old Testament, the ingredients are there. At a minor level, the idea that Israel, the covenant community, was properly called ‘God’s son’ (Ex. 4:22; Dt. 32:6; Ho. 11:1) provides at least a little potential background for the notion of God ‘begetting’ people, enough, Brown thinks, that it should have enabled Nicodemus ‘to understand that Jesus was proclaiming the arrival of the eschatological times when men would be God’s children’ (1. 139). Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27). When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8). Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).

                            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. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.

                            Some have argued that if the flow of the passage is anything like what has been described then it is hopelessly anachronistic, for John’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear (cf. esp. 7:37–39) that the Holy Spirit would not be given until after Jesus is glorified, and it is this Holy Spirit who must effect the new birth, even if the expression ‘born of water and spirit’ does not refer to the Holy Spirit per se. So how then can Jesus demand of Nicodemus such regeneration?

                            The charge is ill-conceived. Jesus is not presented as demanding that Nicodemus experience the new birth in the instant; rather, he is forcefully articulating what must be experienced if one is to enter the kingdom of God. The resulting tension is no different from the corresponding Synoptic tension as to when the kingdom dawns. In Matthew, for instance, Jesus is born the King (Mt. 1–2), he announces the kingdom and performs the powerful works of the kingdom (4:17; 12:28), but it is not until he has arisen from the dead that all authority becomes his (28:18–20). That is why all discipleship in all four Gospels is inevitably transitional. The coming-to-faith of the first followers of Jesus was in certain respects unique: they could not instantly become ‘Christians’ in the full-orbed sense, and experience the full sweep of the new birth, until after the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. If we take the Gospel records seriously, we must conclude that Jesus sometimes proclaimed truth the full significance and application of which could be fully appreciated and experienced only after he had risen from the dead. John 3 falls under this category.

                            It appears, then, that the passage makes good sense within the historical framework set out for us, i.e. as a lesson for Nicodemus within the context of the ministry of Jesus. But we must also ask how John expected his readers to understand it. If his targeted readers were hellenistic Jews and Jewish proselytes who had been exposed to Christianity and whom John was trying to evangelize (cf. Introduction, § VI, and notes on 20:30–31), then his primary message for them is clear. No matter how good their Jewish credentials, they too must be born again if they are to see or enter the kingdom of God. When John wrote this, Christian baptism had been practised for several decades (which was of course not the case when Jesus spoke with Nicodemus). If (and it is a quite uncertain ‘if’) the Evangelist expected his readers to detect some secondary allusion to Christian baptism in v. 5 (cf. Richter, Studien, pp. 327–345), the thrust of the passage treats such an allusion quite distantly. What is emphasized is the need for radical transformation, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises anticipating the outpouring of the Spirit, and not a particular rite. If baptism is associated in the readers’ minds with entrance into the Christian faith, and therefore with new birth, then they are being told in the strongest terms that it is the new birth itself that is essential, not the rite. ~Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (pp. 191–196). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

                            --David
                            Simul Justus et Peccator ~Martin Luther

                            "We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone" ~John Calvin

                            "Instead of a river, God often gives us a brook, which may be running today and dried up tomorrow. Why? To teach us not to rest in our blessings, but in the Blesser Himself." ~A. W. Pink

                            "The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances" ~Elisabeth Elliot

                            "The law is for the self-righteous to humble their pride; the Gospel is for the lost to remove their despair. ~C. H. Spurgeon
                            Comment>

                              #15
                              Thought I'd add MacArthur's thoughts in as well (for the best examination of the different meanings of "born of water" however, even MacArthur recommends Carson's commentary above).

                              Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (3:4–8)

                              Jesus’ shocking statement was far more than Nicodemus had expected. Incredulous, Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Certainly, this highly educated Pharisee was not so obtuse as to have misinterpreted Jesus’ words in a simplistically literal sense. He knew our Lord was not talking about being physically reborn, but he replied in the context of the Lord’s analogy. How could he start all over, go back to the beginning? Jesus was telling him that entrance to God’s salvation was not a matter of adding something to all his efforts, not topping off his religious devotion, but rather canceling everything and starting all over again. At the same time, he clearly could not grasp the full meaning of what that meant. His questions convey his confusion, as he openly wondered at the impossibility of Christ’s statement. Jesus was asking for something that was not humanly possible (to be born again); He was making entrance into the kingdom contingent on something that could not be obtained through human effort. But if that was true, what did it mean for Nicodemus’s works-based system? If spiritual rebirth, like physical rebirth, was impossible from a human standpoint, then where did that leave this self-righteous Pharisee?

                              Far from minimizing the demands of the gospel, Jesus confronted Nicodemus with the most difficult challenge He could make. No wonder Christ would later say to His disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24). By calling him to be born again, Jesus challenged this most religious Jew to admit his spiritual bankruptcy and abandon everything he was trusting in for salvation. That is precisely what Paul did, as he declared in Philippians 3:8–9:

                              More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.

                              Jesus answered Nicodemus’s confusion by elaborating on the truth He introduced in verse 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” A number of interpretations have been offered to explain the phrase born of water. Some see two births here, one natural, and the other spiritual. Proponents of this view interpret the water as the amniotic fluid that flows from the womb just before childbirth. But it is not clear that the ancients described natural birth in that way. Further, the phrase born of water and the Spirit parallels the phrase “born again” in verse 3; thus, only one birth is in view. Others see in the phrase born of water a reference to baptism, either that of John the Baptist, or Christian baptism. But Nicodemus would not have understood Christian baptism (which did not yet exist) nor misunderstood John the Baptist’s baptism. Nor would Jesus have refrained from baptizing people (4:2) if baptism were necessary for salvation. Still others see the phrase as a reference to Jewish ceremonial washings, which being born of the Spirit transcends. However the two terms are not in contrast with each other, but combine to form a parallel with the phrase “born again” in verse 3. (For a careful examination of the various interpretations of born of water, see D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 191–96.)

                              Since Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand this truth (v. 10), it must have been something with which he was familiar. Water and Spirit often refer symbolically in the Old Testament to spiritual renewal and cleansing (cf. Numbers 19:17–19; Isaiah 4:4; 32:15; 44:3; 55:1; Joel 2:28–29; Zechariah 13:1). In one of the most glorious passages in all of Scripture describing Israel’s restoration to the Lord by the new covenant, God said through Ezekiel,

                              For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:24–27)

                              It was surely this passage that Jesus had in mind, showing regeneration to be an Old Testament truth (cf. Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 11:18–20) with which Nicodemus would have been acquainted. Against this Old Testament backdrop, Christ’s point was unmistakable: Without the spiritual washing of the soul, a cleansing accomplished only by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) through the Word of God (Eph. 5:26), no one can enter God’s kingdom.

                              Jesus continued by further emphasizing that this spiritual cleansing is wholly a work of God, and not the result of human effort: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Just as only human nature can beget human nature, so also only the Holy Spirit can effect spiritual transformation. The term flesh (sarx) here refers merely to human nature (as it does in 1:13–14); in this context, it does not have the negative moral connotation that it frequently does in Paul’s writings (e.g., Romans 8:1–8, 12–13). Even if a physical rebirth were possible, it would produce only flesh. Thus, only the Spirit can produce the spiritual birth required for entrance into God’s kingdom. Regeneration is entirely His work, unaided by any human effort (cf. Romans 3:25).

                              Although Jesus’ words were based on Old Testament revelation, they ran completely contrary to everything Nicodemus had been taught. For his entire life he had believed that salvation came through his own external merit. Now he found it exceedingly difficult to think otherwise. Aware of his astonishment, Jesus continued, “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ ” The verb translated must is a strong term; John used it elsewhere in his gospel to refer to the necessity of the crucifixion (3:14; 12:34), of John the Baptist’s inferiority to Christ (3:30), of the proper method of worshiping God (4:24), of Jesus carrying out His ministry (4:4; 9:4; 10:16), and of the necessity of the resurrection (20:9). It was absolutely necessary for Nicodemus to get over his astonishment at being so wrong about how one is accepted into God’s kingdom and seek to be born again if he was to enter. And he could never do so based on his own righteous works.

                              Then the Lord illustrated His point with a familiar example from nature: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The wind cannot be controlled; it blows where it wishes. And though its general direction can be known, where it comes from and where it is going cannot be precisely determined. Nevertheless, the wind’s effects can be observed. The same is true of the work of the Spirit. His sovereign work of regeneration in the human heart can neither be controlled nor predicted. Yet its effects can be seen in the transformed lives of those who are born of the Spirit. ~MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). Commentary on John 1–11 (pp. 103–106). Chicago: Moody Press.

                              --David
                              Simul Justus et Peccator ~Martin Luther

                              "We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone" ~John Calvin

                              "Instead of a river, God often gives us a brook, which may be running today and dried up tomorrow. Why? To teach us not to rest in our blessings, but in the Blesser Himself." ~A. W. Pink

                              "The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances" ~Elisabeth Elliot

                              "The law is for the self-righteous to humble their pride; the Gospel is for the lost to remove their despair. ~C. H. Spurgeon
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