What does the expression: born of water and of the Spirit mean?
Born of water and of the Spirit
In the Gospel of John 3:1-16 Jesus tells Nicodemus about being born again. In verse 3 Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus does not deny that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in the person, ministry and message of the Lord Jesus. Nicodemus wants to be part of the Kingdom of God, but to do so he must be born of water and the Spirit.
“How can a person be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” (John 3:4 NASB)
The word “again” can mean “from above” or “again”. Nicodemus understood that the birth was to take place “again”, but not “from above”. Jesus further insists that this new birth, this new conception, this new regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit coming from above. Whether again or from above, both refer to birth from God.
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.” John (1:13-14 NASB)
But how did Nicodemus understand the expression: born of water and of the Spirit, and to what experience does it refer?
In this article I will not attempt to discuss the views of theologians exposed to this topic, such as:
- water means natural birth and the Spirit indicates spiritual birth;
- water and the Spirit together indicate spiritual cleansing and renewal;
- water is John’s baptism, and the Spirit is what comes with the acceptance of Jesus;
- the water points to the outward side of Christian baptism, and the Spirit to the inward side.
Jesus emphasizes the need for transformation or renewal of the whole human nature through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing good in man’s nature because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and therefore man cannot enter or see the Kingdom of God, because nothing undefiled will enter the Kingdom of God.
The emphasis of the passage given is not on baptism as some assume, in fact the word “water” is mentioned only once in John 3:1-16. The emphasis, however, is on the work of the Holy Spirit (v.8), the work of the Son (v.14-15) and the work of God (v.16-17) and the importance of faith in the new birth. Moreover, wherever John speaks of baptism and the Holy Spirit they are contrasted.
“John answered them, saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, `He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.”(John 1:26,33 NASB)
But in the passage given, the water and the Spirit are not contrasted, but they are linked and together they become the equivalent of “above”. Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for misunderstanding the things mentioned in the Law of Israel.
Translated by Aliona Soltan