It is written:
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Without a doubt, John 3:5 is one of the most powerful texts about the subject of baptism.
Within the writings of the second century Christians, we find a great deal of discussion about this text and its connection with baptism.
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.] )
Chrysostom-“That the need of water [in baptism] is absolute and indispensable, you may learn in this way. On one occasion, when the Spirit had flown down before the water was applied, the apostle did not stand idle at this point, but, as though the water were necessary and not superfluous, observe what he says, “Can any one forbid water so that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” [Act 10:47.] Why then is water needed?… In baptism, the pledges of our covenant with God are fulfilled: burial and death, resurrection and life. And these all take place at once.” ()Homilies on the Gospel of John 25.2. [NPNF 1 14:89**.] )
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.] )F)
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.] )
As you can see, John 3:5 was often linked in the second century Christian writings with baptism-and continued to be for nearly two thousand years thereafter! This will be important to remember, as we progress in our study.
Let’s notice some specific facts about the passage.
First of all, Jesus is talking about the subject of the new birth. There is a need for wicked man to be “born again.” Scripture teaches that when a person commits sin, he becomes a slave of sin (John 8:34-35). Sin begins to corrupt us (James 1:13-15; Romans 7:9-25). Jesus came so that we could be born again, so that He could set us free from sin (John 1:10-12; 1 John 3:8-9). In order for this to be accomplished, we must undergo this new birth.
Second, the new birth is a singular event composed of two elements: the water and the Spirit. Some disciples believe in triple baptism (baptizing a person three times); however, this Scripture indicates that there is only one act of baptism. Ferguson has written:
“The most important text in John for Christian baptism is John 3: 3 and 5, “Except one is begotten from above [or, again, ἄνωθεν], that person cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . Except one is begotten of water and Spirit [ἐξ ὕδατoς καì πνεύματoς], that person cannot enter the kingdom of God.” 476 The usual translation is “born,” probably because of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding in verse 4. But if we take the ambiguous ἄνωθεν as “from above” (its meaning in 3: 31 and 19: 11) and follow the emphasis on the Spirit in verses 6-12 (esp. v. 8), then Jesus’ statements concern primarily the divine begetting, not the human rebirth, although the latter would be implicit even if not explicit. 477 God gives new life through the Spirit (6: 63) in the water. 478 John 3: 5 became the most cited baptismal text in the second century and continued to be important afterward. Despite the overwhelming historical and majority contemporary consensus, there have been insistent efforts to remove John 3: 5 from the dossier of baptismal texts….The preposition “of ” governs both water and Spirit; the birth has a water-Spirit source, forming a conceptual unity. There is only one birth, not two.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 3138-3156 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
Third, this new birth is composed of two elements: water and the Spirit.
What does this mean?
In recent years, a common objection to John 3:5 has been that this passage is not even discussing baptism at all. Instead, it is claimed that the phrase “water” has reference to semen or to physical birth, so that Christ is claiming that one cannot be born of the Spirit unless he is first born physically into the world.
The first problem with this theory is that Jesus already had used phrases in the Gospel of John to describe physical birth, and “water” was not one of them!
“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). 43 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 Gospel Of John, 3562-3571 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B Eerdmans Publishing Company)
Another problem with interpreting “water” as physical birth in this passage is that the word “water” throughout John chapters 1-4 has constant reference to baptism.
“Jesus said that no one can be part of God’s saved kingdom unless he or she is “born of water and the Spirit.” What was He talking about? In the context of the first chapters of John, “born of water” can be talking only about baptism. In John 1-4, both John and Jesus are continually teaching people to be baptized in water (John 1: 25-28, 31-33; 3: 22-26; 4: 1-2). Even further, considering all of Christ’s teachings, what else but baptism could “water” possibly refer to? Jesus was telling Nicodemus that baptism is a new birth, in which we enter God’s kingdom.” (Tim Alsup, Baptism 101, 497-502 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Company)
When we look at how the word “water” is used contextually in John 1-4, we see that it clearly has reference to the rite of baptism.
Again, notice that the early Christians clearly understood John 3:5 as a reference to baptism. It is hard to believe that the disciples of Christ would have so misconstrued His words for nearly two thousand years!
But perhaps the biggest problem with the view that John 3:5 is referencing physical birth is that Jesus was using language in this passage which was commonly used among the rabbis to describe baptism!
“That baptism was absolutely necessary to make a proselyte is so frequently stated as not to be disputed (See Maimonides, u. s.; the tractate Massekheth Gerim in Kirchheim’s Septem Libri Talm. Parvi, pp. 38-44 [which, however, adds little to our knowledge]; Targum on Ex. 12: 44; Ber. 47 b; Kerith. 9 a; Jer. Yebam. p. 8d; Yebam. 45 b, 46 a and b, 48 b, 76 a; Ab. Sar. 57a, 59 a, and other passages). …The waters of baptism were to him in very truth, though in a far different from the Christian sense, the ‘bathof regeneration’ (Titus 3: 5). As he stepped out of these waters he was considered as ‘born anew’, in the language of the Rabbis, as if he were ‘a little child just born’ (Yeb. 22 a; 48 b, as ‘a child of one day’ (Mass. Ger. c. ii.). But this new birth was not ‘a birth from above’ in the sense of moral or spiritual renovation, but only as implying a new relationship to God, to Israel, and to his own past, present, and future. It was expressly enjoined that all the difficulties of his new citizenship should first be set before him, and if, after that, he took upon himself the yoke of the law, he should be told how all those sorrows and persecutions were intended to convey a greater blessing, and all those commandments to redound to greater merit. More especially was he to regard himself as a new man in reference to his past. Country, home, habits, friends, and relation were all changed. The past, with all that had belonged to it, was past, and he was a new, man the old, with its difilements, was burried in the waters of baptism.” (Alfred Edersheim, Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, 26919-26943 (Kindle Edition))
So, being born of “water” had reference to the act of baptism.
However, what does it mean to be born of the Spirit?
Is this a reference to Holy Spirit baptism?
It is tempting to equate being born of the Spirit with Holy Spirit baptism; however, there are some serious problems with such attempts.
The first problem is this: in John 3:5, there is only one birth under view, one act. So whatever it means to be born “of the Spirit,” this occurs at the same time as being baptized. However, the Scriptures teach that Holy Spirit baptism happened after water baptism: indeed, they are are shown to be separate events.
The clearest example of this is seen in Acts 8:
Acts 8:12-19-But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. 13 Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done. 14 Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, 15 who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Here, the Samaritans who received the Word of God were baptized in water (in accordance with the Great Commission). After that, the Apostles had to come and lay their hands on some of them to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. (That the baptism of the Spirit is being reference in Acts 8:16 is seen in the way that the Spirit is referred to “He had fallen upon none of them.’ This is used throughout Acts to reference Holy Spirit baptism, as in Acts 2:1-4).
It was not until the Samaritans had the Apostles lay hands upon them that they received the Holy Spirit baptism.
Indeed, this seems to be the same example throughout Acts: we see that Holy Spirit baptism is shown to be a separate event from baptism in water (cf. Acts 2:38; 10:44-48; 19:1-6).
Since being “born of the Spirit” occurs at the same time as water baptism (John 3:5), and since Holy Spirit baptism always occurred after water baptism (Acts 2:38; 8:11-19; 10:44-48; 19:1-6), then it is clear that “being born of the Spirit” is not a reference to Holy Spirit baptism.
Other considerations demonstrate this as well. In the New Testament, Holy Spirit baptism is said to be for the purpose of God supernaturally revealing and confirming His Word to mankind (John 14:26; 16:13); yet the baptism of John 3:5 is about enabling one to be forgiven and added to the kingdom of God.
More to the point, Holy Spirit baptism is always said in the New Testament to be an event that was accompanied with outward miraculous events and signs (Acts 2:1-13; 19:1-6). Yet this was not the common experience of everyone in the first century church who were baptized; indeed, these miraculous manifestations that accompanied baptism of the Spirit only occurred with the laying on of the Apostles’ hands (Acts 6:1-6; 8:18-19).
So, it would seem that being born of the Spirit is not a reference to Holy Spirit baptism.
What then does this mean?
In this text, the water and the Spirit are the instruments of the new birth. The Holy Spirit brings forth new life, through the medium of the waters of baptism. We see this in parallel passages in the New Testament.
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,
Notice that Peter here refers to the new birth which takes place at conversion:
“The NIV translates the first clause, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth.” More literally the phrase could be translated, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth” (NRSV).156 Both of these translations appear to understand “purified” (hgnikotes), a perfect participle, as referring to conversion.157 The perfect tense of the participle supports this view, signifying a past action that has ongoing consequences. Moreover, the phrase (lit.) “by obedience to the truth” (en hypako ts altheias) probably refers to “the truth of the gospel.” Often in the New Testament the gospel is designated as “the truth.”158 We should not understand the phrase as “true obedience” (an adjectival genitive) but “obedience to the truth” (an objective genitive).159 The word “obedience” (HCSB) describes conversion elsewhere in the New Testament, signifying submission to the gospel (Rom 1:5; 15:18; 16:19,26), and I have already argued that Peter had conversion in mind in 1:2 (cf. also 1:14) when he spoke of “obedience to Jesus Christ.”” (Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary Book 37), 95 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; B&H Publishing Group)
Please notice that Peter says that the Spirit is the One Who brings forth the begetting of the new birth, through the Word of God. He later tells us that this conversion occurs in the act of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21).
It is interesting to notice this idea of “begetting” (the more literal rendering instead of the word “born” both in John 3 and in 1 Peter 1). Keener observes:
“Birthed is normally a feminine image and the same verse speaks of the Father, hence implying fathering by conception (hence the “seed” in 1: 23). 21 Nevertheless, in today’s English “beget” sounds archaic and “father” as a verb has more to do with raising a child than begetting one. “Regeneration” focuses on the experience but could obscure the connection with the Father. Just as biological generation brings biological life, so regeneration from an immortal seed (1: 23), thus becoming the Father’s children (cf. 1: 14), brings new, eternal life. The phrase “eternal life” appears first in Jewish sources as the life of the resurrection (Dan. 12: 2), and this phrase appears often both in early Jewish sources22 and in early Christianity.” (Craig S. Keener, 1 Peter: A Commentary, 65 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
The text teaches us that the Spirit brings us forth through the ‘seed’ of the Word of God. This ties the ones who are reborn with the idea of the Spirit being the One Who “begs” the one that is brought forth:
“In 1: 23, Peter adds another element in his depiction of rebirth, that of the seed (cf. 1 John 3: 9). 216 A man’s sperm was considered human “seed.” Ancient thinkers often commented also on what they envisioned as divine seed. 217 For example, the supreme God created the universe by his seed. 218 More relevant is the ancient image of God’s seed in people, as in many of the following examples (though early Christians would have differed from gentile philosophers’ idea of innate divinity in people). ■ Seneca the Younger: Divine seeds are dispersed in mortals’ bodies; if cultivated well, “they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came.” 219 ■ Musonius Rufus: A seed of virtue lies in all people. 220 ■ Epictetus: From God have come “the seeds of being . . . to all things that are begotten and that grow upon earth, and chiefly to rational beings, seeing that by nature it is theirs alone to have communion in the society of God, being intertwined with him through the reason.” 221 ■ Maximus of Tyre: “Souls all conceive because that is their nature, . . . and give birth through reason. . . . it is impossible for anything to grow except from a seed, or to grow into anything other than what the nature of the seed determines.” These seeds are immortal. 222 ■ Philo: “Their bodies have been moulded from human seeds, but their souls are sprung from divine seeds, and therefore their stock is akin to God.” 223 ■ 4 Ezra: “This is my law, which I sow among you to bear fruit and bring you glory for ever. . . . Those who received it perished, because they failed to keep safe the good seed that had been sown in them.” 224 Everything that springs from a seed shares its nature (cf. Gen. 1: 11–12, 21, 24–25; John 3: 6), so that, as one Stoic thinker suggests, “good does not spring from evil, any more than figs grow from olive-trees. Things which grow correspond to their seed.” 225 Since seed bears fruit according to its character, those born of divine seed reflect the character of divine love (thus the relation between 1 Pet. 1: 22 and 1: 23).” (Craig S. Keener, 1 Peter: A Commentary, 115 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
Other passages of Scripture connect being born again with the Spirit’s work through God’s Word:
1 Corinthians 4:15-For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
James 1:18-Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
So in John 3:5, Jesus is teaching us that the one who enters into the rite of baptism receives a new nature, one that is brought forth by the Word of the Spirit, through the waters.
It is through the act of baptism that we are brought forth into the kingdom of God (and this reminds us again that the baptism of John 3:5 is a prophecy of the Christian Age).
It is also good to remember here that the idea of being born again in the language of proselyte baptism that is used in John 3:5 implies the sinlessness and innocence of infants and children. These who are reborn into the kingdom are made as innocent and sinless as infants and small children. Prager talks about the Jewish belief of child innocence and contrasts it with the doctrine of original sin (which he mistakenly relates to Christianity instead of Catholicism):
“A difference between Christian and Jewish teachings on this issue is that Christian theology teaches that because of Adam and Eve’s sin, all people are born in a state of sin while the Jewish belief is people are born innocent (though prone to do bad). Or, as Joseph Telushkin puts it, “The prevailing attitude among Jewish scholars is that people sin as Adam and Eve sinned, not because they sinned.”” (Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Genesis, 95-96 (Kindle Edition); Washington, DC; Regnery Faith)
There is no original sin in the Bible (Old or New Testaments).
In summary, John 3:5 teaches us the following about baptism:
First, the idea of “being born of water” is a definite reference to baptism.
Second, this connection of baptism into the kingdom of God with proselyte baptism reminds us that this is not for infants and small children, but for those who have been instructed in God’s Word.
Third, being born of the Spirit has reference to the Holy Spirit creating a new nature by His Word and through the waters of baptism in the heart of the convert.
Fourth, the one who is baptized with Christian baptism will be initiated into the kingdom of God.
Fifth, the baptism of the convert into the kingdom of God produces a state of sinlessness and innocence as with infants and small children, reminding us again that the Old and New Testaments teach that infants and small children as born innocent (thus negating the teaching of original sin).
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.