WHAT IS THE MEANING OF “WATER” IN JOHN 3:5

 

Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? (NRSV John 3:3-10)

 

Ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ Πνεύματος

unless one is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5)

This critical phrase in verse 5 has given interpreters genuine difficulty.

 

1.     Factors to be Considered

 

The most plausible interpretation of “born of water and the Spirit” turns on the following three factors:

  1. The expression is parallel to “from above” (v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. 
     

  2. The preposition “of” governs both “water” and “spirit”. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source that stands as the origin of this regeneration. 
     

  3. The Lord Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as “Israel’s teacher” (v. 10), a senior “professor” of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind.

 2.     Discussions

 

There are seven possible understandings of this critical phrase:

 

  1. “Water and” are not part of the original text. These words are added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. Others suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. However, there is no textual support for the omission. 
     

  2. “Water” might refer to Torah. It can refer to the Pentateuch, or to the entire Jewish teaching and tradition about God, written and oral. Though water is sometimes a symbol for Torah in rabbinic literature, ‘birth of water’ or the like does not occur, so the idea of “born anew” through Torah is doubtful. 
     

  3. “Water” might refer to the water-purification rites of the Essenes in Qumran. The Essenes was a conservative and monastic Jewish movement, or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. However, ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3). What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. 
     

  4. “Water” could refer to John’s baptism. In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future. The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? 
     

  5. “Water” is Christian baptism that is accompanied by spiritual regeneration. The early church understood baptism to be the sacramental enactment of Jesus’ promise of new birth. A baptismal reading of 3:5–6 thus expands on the images of birth and new life already contained in the text. Indeed, John was surely aware of the baptismal overtones for the church of the imagery in these verses. Those who adopt this position are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. Certainly Nicodemus could not be expected to know this, and such a view makes John a terrible storyteller since in verse 10 Jesus upbraids the rabbi for not understanding these things. This part of the account becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again. 
     

  6. “Water” refers to natural birth. In 3:4, Nicodemus drew Jesus’ attention to the birthing process with his words about his mother’s womb. The birth that Nicodemus envisions, the exit from the mother’s womb, is quite literally a birth out of water. In v. 5, Jesus plays on Nicodemus’s womb imagery to say that entrance into the kingdom of God will require a double birth: physical birth (“water”) and spiritual rebirth (“Spirit”). New life will be born from water and Spirit, no longer only from water. We have all of us been born “out of water” but another birth “out of Spirit” is needed to enter the Kingdom of God. This interpretation not only avoids the objections against the other suggestions but links on closely to Nicodemus’ reference to the womb. Noting that verse 6 supports this interpretation of v. 5, it describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit. Yet the spiritual rebirth also does not void the physical birth. Spirit and flesh are held together. However, the idea “born of water” equals to “natural birth” has no parallel either from the Johannine materials themselves or anywhere else in relevant ancient writings, whether biblical or extra-biblical. Another weakness of this exegesis is that the Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression “of water and the Spirit” cries out to be read as the equivalent of “from above”, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two. 
     

  7. “Water” and “Spirit” mean the same thing. The Greek conjunction (καί) of verse 5 can mean either “water and Spirit” or “water that is Spirit” or “water namely Spirit.” The two terms are functional equivalents, with water serving as a symbol of the Spirit. The “water” signifies the cleansing and life-imparting action of the Spirit. Water has this function in both the Jewish Scriptures (e.g. Ezek. 36:24-27—“I will sprinkle clean water upon you … a new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you … I will put my spirit within you”) and the Qumran literature (e.g. 1QS 4.19-21—“He will cleanse him of all wicked deeds by means of a holy spirit; like purifying waters he will sprinkle upon him the spirit of truth”). The Fourth Gospel itself makes clear precisely this same connection in 7:38-9—“Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” It is a common way of speaking in Scripture, when the Spirit is mentioned, to add the word water or fire to express His power. For example, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16), where fire does not mean something different from the Spirit but only shows what is His power in us. It is as if Christ had said that no one is a child of God until he or she has been renewed by water and that this water is the Spirit who cleanses us anew and who, by His power poured on us, imparts to us the energy of the heavenly life. This is the best explanation as it satisfies all the three factors mentioned in the above section 1.

 

3.     Conclusion

 

The Lord Jesus referred not to literal water here but to the need for “cleansing” (e.g., Ezek. 36:24–27). When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it refers to renewal or spiritual cleansing, especially when used in conjunction with “spirit” (Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Jer. 2:13). Thus, the Lord Jesus made reference to the spiritual washing or purification of the soul, accomplished by the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, required for belonging to His kingdom.

 

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