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What does it mean to be ‘born of water’ in John 3:5?

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In John 3, Jesus speaks to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and declares that Jesus must be from God because no one could do the signs He did unless God is with Him. At this meeting, Jesus teaches Nicodemus about being “born again” and salvation through Christ. Nicodemus himself was a teacher of the Law. He was an equivalent to a politician, priest, and teacher all in one. As Jesus continues to teach, Nicodemus does not understand the law and God’s word as much as he thought. This conversation is a hugely important part of the gospel as Jesus explains He alone is the means of salvation and what it means to be born again.

At the start of this conversation, Jesus says in John 3:5, “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” What did Jesus mean by saying “unless one is born of water?” Being “born of the Spirit” clearly implies that only through accepting Jesus Christ can you be saved and enter the kingdom of God (John 3:16-21). The Holy Spirit produces the new life in salvation – understanding it as being ‘born of the Spirit.” To understand the meaning of being born of water, let us look at three interpretations and the most plausible interpretation according to scripture.

Firstly, water baptism.

Some think Jesus is referring to water baptism. This explanation is unsatisfactory because if Jesus is referring to the Christian baptism, how was Nicodemus to understand this concept? In the context of John 3, baptism is nowhere mentioned, and in fact, nowhere in the Bible are we taught to do anything or work for salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doingit is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Additionally, in John 4:2, we are told that Jesus did not baptise people. Water baptism is an outward sign of being gifted salvation, not a requirement for salvation. In Luke 23:40-43, one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Notice that there was no requirement for baptism here. 

Secondly, physical birth.

The second interpretation of “born of water” refers to the natural birth (amniotic water corresponding to natural birth). That is to say – we must have a physical birth first, just like everybody else, and the second must be a spiritual birth, which is a work of God and thus being “born again.” The issue with this interpretation is there are no references to such a thought in the Old and New Testaments. Especially in light of Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus. Since Nicodemus was a teacher of the Law, there has to be something from scripture to reveal this truth from scripture. In fact, Nicodemus was confused by this statement from Jesus and asked in John 3:9, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus possibly thought of a physical birth again in error. So Jesus responds in John 3:10, saying, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

In this interpretation, the thought process says that we must be born spiritually in the heart just as we are born physically. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Also, just as a baby does not contribute to the birth process, it is with the spiritual birth since it is a complete work of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

Thirdly, spiritual cleansing.

The third and most plausible explanation for being “born of water” is to understand Jesus as repeating the same concept. Being born of water refers to spiritual cleansing, and being born of the Spirit is God putting His Spirit in us. Jesus was saying the same thing in different ways. This interpretation has its grounding in scripture and is one that Nicodemus should have known straight away when Jesus spoke those words. That is why Jesus said in John 3:10, saying, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

One key passage to support this view is Ezekiel 36:25-27, saying, I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

The prophet Ezekiel prophesied centuries before Jesus came as a man that a time is coming with a new beginning when God will sprinkle water on you and cleanse you from all your uncleanness. And God will put His Spirit within you, causing you to walk in His statutes being careful to obey Him. This is the requirement for anyone to enter the kingdom of God. Notice here that all of it is God’s doing. It is He who sprinkles (born of water), and it is He who puts His Spirit in us (born of Spirit). Sprinkling symbolises the forgiveness of sins. Among the Jews, it was a common practice to wash with water for purification. This purification also represents the forgiveness of sins. 

You can see the same themes in Titus 3:5, saying, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” Likewise, another reference to washing by water and the word in Ephesians 5:26, saying “that he might sanctify her by the washing of water with the word,” So, God the Father forgives us because of the sacrifice of Jesus. The Holy Spirit regenerates and renews us. This is how we enter the kingdom of God and receive salvation through Christ. Amen!

In closing, Jesus taught that salvation is a complete work of God, the washing, renewal, forgiveness, and placing His Spirit in us so that we may be sanctified and live in a manner that glorifies God. John 1:11-13 says, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

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