John 3.5 – Water Birth?

We are continuing our discussion on baptism as written.

One of the recent interpretations on John 3.5 follows this route:

John 3.3 is talking about being born again. John 3.5 is talking about a natural birth (water) and a spiritual birth (spirit) based on the modern application of water to the water sac of a newborn.

There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee.

2 After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”

3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

4 “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

5 Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.

6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.

7 So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’

8 The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews;

2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

4 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?”

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.

6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The problem is two-fold, really:

First, Christ makes a statement in vs 3, which in verse 4, Nicodemus asks for understanding. In v5, Christ restated verse 3 in an expansion. This is not talking about something new.

The next problem is the application of water to the breaking of the water as we understand it today. We have to realize that neither John nor Christ had been to medical school in the 21st century. Further, biblical, idiomatic, descriptions of birth never included water. It is reading a modern notion into the text if you were to apply the water of birth to the water of which Christ is speaking.

First, we turn to the book of Wisdom (of Solomon) which is of the community from which the writers of the New Testament sprang. The author, like John, is an Hellenized Jew.

I also am mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage. (Wisdom 7:1-2 RSV)

Note this post here, by Suzanne, before you go further. Note as well that Dr. Gayle’s comments alerts us to a Greek’s description of birth. (If you have ever seen a child birth, you know that it is more by blood than by water, after all, the cord delivers the mother’s blood to the baby, not water.)

We then turn to the Gospel in question, to see how the author handled the situation of birth:

who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Joh 1:13 NASB)

Further, in verse 6, we have that Christ plainly says that those who are born of flesh are flesh. No where in the biblical texts, or supporting documents, do we find that a birth is said to be of water.

The NET’s note on this reads:

Or “born of water and wind” (the same Greek word, πνεύματος , may be translated either “spirit/Spirit” or “wind”).

sn Jesus’ somewhat enigmatic statement points to the necessity of being born “from above,” because water and wind/spirit/Spirit come from above. Isaiah 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10 are pertinent examples of water and wind as life-giving symbols of the Spirit of God in his work among people. Both occur in contexts that deal with the future restoration of Israel as a nation prior to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. It is therefore particularly appropriate that Jesus should introduce them in a conversation about entering the kingdom of God. Note that the Greek word πνεύματος is anarthrous (has no article) in v. 5. This does not mean that spirit in the verse should be read as a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, but that both water and wind are figures (based on passages in the OT, which Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel should have known) that represent the regenerating work of the Spirit in the lives of men and women.

What was it that Christ was referring to, that Nicodemus should have known?

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. (Eze 36:25-27 NLT)

I believe that this is more here than a discussion on baptismal regeneration, as it appears that Christ is speaking about entry into the New, eschatological, Israel, but the point of this post is to speak to the idea that ‘water’ refers to the first birth. Not only does the construction of the passage prevent that, but so too does the biblical narrative and the cultural surroundings which never once recorded the idea that birth is of water.

(As a side note, read Doug’s post on how this might refer to the Virgin Birth)

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20 Replies to “John 3.5 – Water Birth?”

  1. Also the Greek word or particle Kia, might be translated “even” in John 3:5, meaning the “water” is for the Spirit..”water even the spirit.” This would fit better in the context also. Kai is used to connect words, clauses and sentences, thus “also”. In John 3:5, it would thus be used symbolically to baptism, the expression but not the medium itself. Again, the “water” would be embelmatic of the Spirit, as John 7: 38. The ‘sign and seal’.

    1. You mean, like the Father, even the Son? 🙂

      I tend to think that the water here is literal, although in John’s gospel, we do have a figurative water (John 7?), etc…

          1. Actually, it was a pretty powerful suggestion, one which I hope to answer – or at least explore – more fully.

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