Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Born of Water

NuumbaOne11 said:

If you deny the sacramental readin of John 3:5, what’s left? You’d have to argue that “water” means some Old Testament symbol, like the water from the rock or the water of the Red Sea. But that wouldn’t make sense in the sentance: Is Jesus saying we must be born of the Red Sea and the Holy Spirit?

4/25/2006 1:59 PM

1. This commenter, in asking his question, altogether ignores Steve’s initial presentation. He pretends that the anachronistic and acontextual properties of the sacramental reading are non-existent. In asking, “What’s left,” he expects one to accept an improbable reading on the basis that it is, supposedly, the only reading available. The fact that such a reading is wholly out of synchronization with the rest of John’s themes seems to matter little to this commenter.

2. For years, I ignorantly assumed that the birth “of water” referred to the amniotic fluid that flows in the process of birth (”water breaks”). But this type of reading is almost as anachronistic as the sacramental reading, for there is no evidence in any early manuscript that birth was referred to in this manner.

3. Furthermore, as was pointed out in the comments section, the Greek text does not refer to two births, but one. It does not distinguish between a natural birth and a spiritual birth. Rather, both births are referred to by the same preposition (rather than “of water and of spirit,” it is simply “of water and spirit”: εξ υδατος και πνευματος). The spiritual birth is the water birth.

4. Jesus, rather than alluding to something about which Nicodemus would have no clue (baptismal regeneration), he refers to something which Nicodemus would have easily understood:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

One must be regenerated to enter the Kingdom of God, and this regeneration involves the dual work of both being cleansed of sin and receiving the Spirit. In order to enter the Kingdom, one must not only be free from his sins, but he must possess a heart of flesh and the Spirit of God that is received in regeneration.

Evan May.


  1. Evan is correct in citing Ezekiel. We could add other Old Testament passages that associate the Holy Spirit with water without having physical water in view (Isaiah 44:3), and John associates the Spirit with non-physical water elsewhere (John 7:39). Spiritual washing is a common theme in scripture (Psalm 51:2). In further support of Evan's citation of Ezekiel 36, it should be noted that John possibly alludes to the wind of resurrection of Ezekiel 37:9-14 in verse 8 of John 3.

    There isn't a single example of a person in the Biblical record who comes to faith, then has to wait until baptism before being justified. We repeatedly see people justified prior to baptism or without ever being baptized (Genesis 15:6, Mark 2:5, Luke 7:50, Acts 10:44-48, etc.), including in passages that are referred to as normative (Luke 18:10-14, Acts 15:7-11, Galatians 3:2-9). Like Abraham, we're justified as soon as we believe. Abraham isn't just an illustration of the necessity of faith. He's also an illustration of the sufficiency of faith. Anybody who has the faith of Abraham is justified, and he doesn't have to wait until he's baptized a week or a few months later.

  2. Fantastic point, Evan, in that Christ was not talking about something NEW! Nicodemus should've known about this, precisely by reading the Old Testament. This rules out decisively any and all exclusively "New Testament" definitions about what it means to be regenerated, or born again. Including baptismal regeneration.

  3. Ezekiel could also refer to water baptism.

  4. So....the Israelites understood the Ezekiel passage as referring to when God was going to clean them of their idols....by sprinkling physical water on them?

  5. my dear, my dear,

    Yes, that is what it meant. They didn't fully understand it, just as they didn't fully understand passages dealing with the future messiah.

  6. The argument that a sacramental reading of Jn. 3 is anachronistic has no merit, since Jesus often spoke anachronistically to foreshadow things to come in the future.

    Like, what about the time Jesus told the Jews that He would tear down the temple and raise it up in three days?
    In the context, they did not know what he was talking about yet. But He expected them to know what he meant.

    Same with John 3:5.

  7. Nuumbaone,

    You can't appeal to what you call an anachronistic reading just because an anachronistic reading is possible. The issue isn't how the text could possibly be read, but rather how to make the most sense of it. We know that Jesus is referring to His body in John 2:19 because John tells us so in 2:21. We have no such statement about the water of John 3. Since we can explain the water without including baptism, and since we know that Jesus repeatedly told people that they were justified before or without baptism, it makes more sense to see the water of John 3 as something defined by the Old Testament and by John's gospel (John 7:38-39), not by later sacramentalism. In the immediate context of John 3, Jesus goes on to mention faith three times (verses 15, 16, and 18) without mentioning baptism at all. Baptism isn't needed to explain the passage, so why should we accept your appeal to anachronism? You refer to "future fulfillment" of John 3:5, but nothing in the text or context suggests that being born of water is something that will only occur in the future. To the contrary, Jesus criticizes Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel, for not understanding Him, and He's discussing how to see the kingdom of God in the present, not in the future. To try to place baptism into the text is unnatural. The passage makes sense, and makes better sense, without including a sacrament. Why include the sacrament, then?

    Keep in mind what I said earlier about the salvation theme of John's gospel (John 20:31). If baptism was to later be added to faith as a means of attaining eternal life, then why would John emphasize Jesus' pre-resurrection comments on salvation (John 3:16, 5:24, 6:40, 11:25, etc.) in order to teach his post-resurrection readers about how to be saved? If people were saved differently after the resurrection than they were before it (if baptism was added as a requirement, for example), then why would John write a gospel emphasizing pre-resurrection teaching on how to be saved? You could argue that Jesus' pre-resurrection statements are meant to teach us the necessity of faith, even though faith is insufficient without having baptism added to it. But, then, why would John never even once explain to his readers that Jesus' statements are no longer applicable to us, and that baptism has since that time been added as a requirement? It makes more sense to conclude that John emphasizes Jesus' statements about the sufficiency of faith because faith continued to be sufficient. People today are justified the same way they were prior to the resurrection, through faith alone. Jesus' statements about justification through faith are just as relevant and complete today as they were when He spoke them.

  8. Hi Evan,

    Great post. For years I too was under the impression that the water referred to physical birth and that Jesus was contrasting two births-- physical and spiritual. This is a common teaching still.

    I also think you're right in tying this back to Ezekial. In general, Israel completely misunderstood this. Most then, as now, believed they had all the eternal blessings of God upon them as God's people, not realizing that inspite of the continuous idolotry and lack of faith, God would continue to draw some out as the exception and who would in fact have faith. This passage in Ezekial deals pointedly with that.

    I think one other thing to point out is that while Nicodemus should have known this as the teacher of Israel, one individual is distinguished for properly understanding it. When you review the account of Apollos' conversion, I think it's interesting that he comes to faith at the baptism of John as the full weight of Ezekial's message came to light in his heart and mind.

    And I think of Lazarus and the rich man, when the man asks for someone to be sent to his family to warn them of the place he now found himself. He is told they have the law and the "prophets". If they won't believe either, they won't believe though one is sent from the dead.

    God has always expected his people to believe his word by faith. And regeneration has always involved the heart and mind, not some physical action or personal experience.

    Thanks again for the post.