Bible Question:

I have heard explanations about 'being born of water and the Spirit' using Ezekiel 36, but they seem to be too much of a stretch. In light of Genesis 1:2-3 and 2 Corinthians 4:6, could being 'born of water and the Spirit' simply mean being made 'a new creation'? Is it wrong to teach others like that?

Bible Answer:

There are various opinions about the meaning of the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” in John 3:5.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. John 3:5 (NASB)

There are three primary opinions as to the meaning of this phrase. The context of any passage of Scripture helps us determine the meaning. Therefore, we must remember that in John 3:3-4 Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again in order to see the kingdom of heaven. Then Nicodemus asked how he could be born a second time.

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” John 3:3-4 (NASB)

Can a man enter his mother’s womb a second time in order to be born again? These two verses help us understand the meaning of the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.”

Born of water and the Spirit - John 3:5

First View – Amniotic Fluid and The Holy Spirit

The first view believes the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” refers to being born again in John 3:3. That is, the amniotic water corresponds to “born of water” and “the Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit. Advocates of this view reason that “born of water” refers to the physical birth and “the Spirit” refers to a Christian’s spiritual birth. Thus, believers are born twice or “born again.”

There are two major problems with this view. First, there is no scriptural support for this view. Since neither the Old or New Testaments have a similar statement, there is no supporting evidence for this theory. Second, when John 3:3 refers to being “born again,” it does not refer to being born twice. The Greek word for “born again”  is anothen which literally means “born from above.” John 3:7, 31; 19:11; James 1:17; 3:15, 17 contain anothen. Almost every Bible translation, including the KJV, translates the word as “from above” in each passage. That is, Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born from above. Nicodemus’ reply reveals that he was confused and did not understand. He did not think about a spiritual birth; but instead he thought about physical birth. This view has serious issues.

Second View – Water Baptism and The Holy Spirit

Others claim that “born of water and the Spirit” refers to Christian water baptism and the Holy Spirit. They state that Jesus was instituting water baptism as a requirement for salvation and the Holy Spirit as then imparting new life through regeneration (Titus 3:5-6).

However, there are four reasons why this view is wrong. First, baptism for eternal life was never taught by John the Baptist or Jesus Christ. It is not possible to find any verse that connects eternal life with baptism. It is important to notice that John 4:1-2 tells us that Jesus “was not baptizing.”  If baptism was so essential for eternal life, why didn’t Jesus baptize? Second, Romans 6:1-7 teaches us that baptism is a symbol of identification of a Christian dying to his or her old self and rising to new life in Christ. It was not instituted for the church until after the death of Christ. Third, Nicodemus would not have understood Christian baptism since it was not taught in the Old Testament and was not taught until after Christ’s death and resurrection. The fourth reason to reject this view is that if baptism is so essential to gain eternal life, why is baptism never mentioned again in John 3 or a following chapter in the book of John?  Why did Jesus not include baptism in John 3:16 or in verse 36? Fifth, the major passage that is usually quoted as proving Christian baptism is necessary for salvation is Acts 2:38. But what is usually missed in the interpretation of Acts 2:38 is that repentance is interchangeable with saving faith (Luke 5:32; 13:5). Repentance is not identical with saving faith, but repentance and saving faith occur together. Therefore, to assume that baptism is what saves a person, makes baptism the real requirement for salvation and ignores John 3:16; Romans 5:1-2 and Ephesians 2:8-10 which teach that faith is required for eternal life. Since Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches that we are not saved by works, this excludes baptism as being necessary for salvation. If fact, this false teaching can condemn a person to hell.

Third View – Cleansing From Sin and New Life By the Spirit

The third view recognizes that Nicodemus would have been familiar with Ezekiel 36:25-27 since he was a teacher of Israel (John 3:10).  Yet, he still did not understand the verse in its fullest sense. Ezekiel 36:25-27 reads as follows,

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NASB)

The most important point about this passage is the repeated statement of “I will.” Notice that we are told God will “sprinkle clean water on you,” “cleanse you from all,” “give you a new heart,” “put a new spirit within in you,” “remove the heart of stone,” “put My Spirit within you” and “cause you to walk in My statues.” Now we will discover the meaning of these actions that God performs for Christians. Sprinkling clean water symbolizes forgiveness of sins. Washing with water was commonly associated with purification among the Jews (John 3:25-26). Hebrews 1:3 and 2 Peter 1:9 illustrates that purification also symbolized the forgiveness of sins. Ephesians 5:26 illustrates this truth. Titus 3:5 connects the washing of water with the ministry of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. In fact the message of John 7:37-39 is that living water is also symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we should understand Ezekiel 36:25-27 as the work of God. God the Father forgives and the Holy Spirit regenerates and renews every true Christian. The Holy Spirit dwells within each believer. Who will cause this to happen? The answer is our God above!

Now remember that Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born “from above.” John 1:13 repeats the same truth that salvation is the work of God and not something that we perform.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even 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 man, but of God. John 1:12-13 (NASB)

Notice the passage says we are born by the will of God. We are not in control. Our human wills are not the deciding factor.

Conclusion:

Jesus’ message to Nicodemus was that salvation is the work of God and not the work of man. Salvation comes from above and involves human choice — human will. It is also important to notice that in John 3:6, Jesus teaches that spiritual life or eternal life is the result of the Spirit and not the work of man. At this point some individuals worry that they might not be able to become a Christian. But the message of the passage is that if you believe in Christ and want to become a Christian, then you demonstrate that God has already caused you to be born from above. He has chosen you and John 3:16 is true for you!

If you are not a Christian, we encourage you to read “Searching for God” and/or contact us.

Suggested Links:

Searching for God
Regeneration - What does it mean to be born again?
Is John 3:5 about cloning, human birth, or the Holy Spirit?
The Bible never says that we don’t have to be baptized to be saved.
Is Baptism Required For Salvation?
Do you believe that baptism is a part of salvation?
How can I be born again? What does it mean to be born again?