Is John 3:5 Referring To Baptism Or To Physical Birth?

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

One of the most powerful passages about the essentiality of baptism for salvation is found in the Gospel of John.

In a conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says:

John 3:5-Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus here teaches us that a person who desires to enter into the kingdom of God must be “born again” (John 3:3).

The word “kingdom” used here had reference to the kingdom prophesied by the Old Testament Prophets (Daniel 2:36-45; 7:13-14; Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-4) which Jesus promised to build within the first century (Mark 9:1) and which is identified by Jesus Himself as the church of Christ (Matthew 16:18-19).

Jesus here teaches Nicodemus that in order to enter into the kingdom, a person must undergo this “new birth.” The New Testament teaches that this new birth happens when a sincere believer in the Word of God is “born again” by being raised with Christ from the watery grave of baptism.


1 Peter 1:22-23-Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, 23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,

Please notice the clear connection in this passage between the Spirit of God, the Word of God, and the new birth.

We are born of the Spirit when the Word of God is allowed to work in us and produce new life, which (when coupled with our obedience to the truth in the act of baptism-1 Peter 3:20-21) results in our being born again.

Paul discusses this new birth in his Letter to the Romans:

Romans 6:3-4-Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

Notice again that this passage clearly links being “born again” with the watery grave of baptism.

The connection of John 3:5 with baptism is so clear that one wonders why a sincere disciple would try and divorce baptism from the new birth.

Sadly, many people in the last couple of hundred of years have been trying to do just that.

One of the more popular notions advocated in religious circles is that the phrase “born of water” actually had reference to physical birth.

So, according to this theory, Jesus is actually saying, “Nicodemus, unless one has been born physically and then is born spiritually, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

What shall we say to this?

First, the idea that being “born of water” is a reference to physical birth is nonsensical. Why would Jesus say that one cannot be born spiritually unless a person has first been born physically? This does not pass the “common sense” test.

Second, look at how the word “water” is used in the context of John 3. It clearly has reference to the waters of baptism (cf. John 3:23).

Third, notice that Jesus is not describing two births in John 3:5; instead He is describing a new “birth” (singular) which is composed of two elements-water and the Spirit.

Fourth, please observe that this “new birth” is directly tied to one becoming a member of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus uses the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” interchangeably with “church.” The kingdom is the church. With that in mind, what “new birth” makes one a member of the church? According to Acts 2:4 1 and 47, it is when a person is baptized into Christ that he receives “remission of sins” and the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), and is added to the kingdom/church by God Himself (Acts 2:47). All of this goes to show us that being “born of water” is not a reference to physical birth, but to the act of baptism.

Fifth, it is definitely saying a lot when we consider that the church for thousands of years understood John 3:5 to be referring-not to physical birth-but to the “new birth” accomplished when the penitent believer is baptized into Christ. For example, consider some of the following quotations from the early Christians regarding John 3:5:

Chrysostom-“If anyone asks how is someone born of water, I ask in return, how is someone [like Adam] born from the earth? How was the clay separated into different parts? How were all different kinds of things, like bones, sinews, arteries, veins, and so on made from one kind of material (which itself was only earth?) … For, as in the beginning, earth was the subject matter [Gk hypekeito stoicheion.] but the whole fabric of the human body was the work of him who molded it, so now too, though the element of water is the subject matter, the whole work is done by the Spirit of grace.… Then, humanity was formed last, when the creation had been accomplished. Now, on the contrary, the new person is formed before the new creation. He is born first, and then the world is fashioned anew.… Then, he gave him a garden as his place to live. Now, he has opened heaven to us.… The first creation then, that is, that of Adam, was from earth; the next, that of the woman, from his rib; the next, that of Abel, from seed, yet we cannot comprehend any of these.… How then shall we be able to account for the unseen generation by baptism, which is far greater than these, or how can we require arguments for that strange and marvelous birth?… The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit do everything. Let us then believe the declaration of God. That is more trustworthy than actual seeing. Sight often is in error; it is impossible that God’s Word should fail. Let us then believe it. Homilies on the Gospel of John 25.1-2. [NPNF 1 14:87-88**; PG 59:149-50.]

Justin Martyr-As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, … [these] are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again.” (First Apology 61. [ANF 1:183.]

Tertullian-“For the law of baptizing has been imposed and the formula prescribed: “Go,” he says, “teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [Mat 28:19.] The comparison with this law of that definition, “Unless one has been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens,” has tied faith to the necessity of baptism. Accordingly, all thereafter who became believers used to be baptized. On Baptism 13. [ANF 3:676.]

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that the Jews had a phrase which they used when referring to physical birth-and Nicodemus had used it in his conversation with Jesus! When the Jews talked about someone being born physically, they used the phrase “born of the flesh” (cf. John 3:1-4).

With that in mind, the following thoughts are noteworthy:

“Another proposal (mostly in popular literature) has been that “born of water” refers to physical birth, whether from the standpoint of water in the mother’s womb, or of water as a euphemism for the male sperm (compare 1 Jn 3:9)….The difficulty, however, is that while “water” is a possible metaphor for physical birth, it is not an obvious one. The Gospel writer already used a number of expressions for physical birth and “born of water” was not among them (see 1:13). He did this, moreover, in order to draw the sharpest possible contrast between physical and spiritual birth (“ not ” of blood lines, etc., “ but ” of God) rather than to point out analogies between them. In the present context Jesus himself will draw an equally sharp contrast between the two: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). The incongruity of understanding water as physical birth can easily be seen by substituting “flesh” (which clearly does mean physical birth) for water, yielding a self- contradictory phrase, “born of flesh and Spirit” or “born of flesh, even Spirit.” (J. Ramsey Michaels, The New International Commentary On The New Testament: The Gospel Of John, 3746-3760 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company)

Many in the religious world object to God’s plan of redemption; but beloved, the Lord is very clear in His Word. God so loved the entire world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Bible belief includes obedience to what God has said to do (James 2:18-26).

Jesus loved you so much that He died for you, was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Through His Word, you can be born of the Spirit. Will you not today as a believer repent of your sins and be baptized into Him to have your sins forgiven and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38)?

If you are an erring child of God, won’t you please be restored to Christ today through repentance and prayer (1 John 1:9)?

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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