“Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” John 3:5 KJV
What kind of water is Jesus speaking of in the above text?
How one interprets this will generally depend on the brand of systematic theology they are bringing to the table. If you confess that baptism is a symbol, then a literal interpretation isn’t going to work for you. In this post I will attempt to demonstrate that a literal understanding of water is the plainest reading of the verse. First I will summarize and refute the two most common alternative renderings of the passage.
Body Fluids… Really??
The first thing most seem to do is to argue that the “water” isn’t actually referring to clean running water. The two most common arguments I see for this is that it should be understood as either amniotic fluid or semen. I cringe at the second the most but I know what they are getting at. Those who read the text this way are saying that there are two chronological births in view in the above verse. The first being a natural birth via human parents and then a second birth of the spirit.
The problem with this view is two fold, first there is only a singular preposition for “born” in John 3:5. Putting it another way, Jesus is only talking about being born again, the natural birth which logically precedes it is not the direct referent. This is further compounded by the fact that every time John uses the word “Hydatos” in his book it is used in the sense of clean water. There is not a single usage referring to body fluids:
For a full listing off all Biblical uses of Hydatos please click HERE.
The other common attempt is to understand the “water” in a figurative sense. Specifically, they will read it as:
“Except a man be born of
water Spirit and of the Spirit”
To support this view they will make two arguments. The first is to assert that understanding “water” as baptism is anachronistic because Nichodemus would not have been aware of baptism. Second they will argue that the water is antitype fulfillment of the transformed life found in scripture. And that there are essentially two baptisms, one of the Spirit which is being born again, and then one of water baptism that symbolizes this rebirth. When arguing for an antitype fulfillment ones who hold this position will generally use the following passages:
“17 And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: 18 And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave: 19 And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.” Num 19:17–19 KJV
“4 When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.” Isa 4:4 KJV
“15 Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest.” Isa 32:15 KJV
“3 For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring” Isa 43:3 KJV
“1 Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Isa 55:1 KJV
“28 And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: 29 And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. 30 And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.” Joel 2:28–29 KJV
“1 In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.” Zech 13:1 KJV
“For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. 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. 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. 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.” Eze 36:24-27 KJV
I would actually agree that these old testament verses are type and shadow, pointing to their antitype fulfillment in our water baptism in the death burial and Resurrection of Christ.
“dip it in the water”
How can a sane person read all the above language and remove the water from it? Clearly water is literal in every sense that the Holy Spirit is literal. There is no reason to separate the two.
The assertion that a baptismal referent is anachronistic falls apart when one takes four truths into consideration.
- John the baptist had been performing baptisms for quite some time before Nichodemus interview with Christ.
- There were many forms of baptism in first century Jewish traditions that would have made such a concept familiar to Nichodemus.
- Jesus always expected his hearers, particularly scribes and pharisees, to be familiar with scripture. Thus an understanding of messianic type and shadow would not have been expected to be beyond Nichodemus comprehension.
- Lastly, the intended audience of the Gospel of John was Christians around 90 A.D. and after. They were very familiar with baptism and would have read “water and of the spirit” as referring to such. This claim can be proven through Patristic writings. For an applicable listing please click HERE.
The ultimate problem with symbolic “water” in John 3:5 is that it teaches two baptisms. The reason this falls apart is that the scriptures are clear that there is only one baptism. And this is ultimately how we know that the Spirit comes by the word and the water. One event, one act of God promised in the word.
“5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” Eph 4:5 KJV
With a singular referent for “born”, numerous relevant examples of Hydatos used as clean water, anachronistic objections addressed, types and shadows including water accepted, and a singular baptism defined by scripture it is fair to assert that the “water” Jesus speaks of in John 3:5 is the waters of our baptism.
I say praise the Lord for this as it is his work performed upon us. You can mark the date of your baptism on a calendar. It is an objective material fact that you can point to and know by the Word that the associated promises are true and efficacious.