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In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the kingdom one must be "born of water and the Spirit". How is this phrase understood? Is it a single construct (i.e. one birth of both water and Spirit)? Or are two births in view (one of water and one of Spirit)? And what does it mean to be born of water?

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Please forgive my lateness in entering the fray, but I have thought for years that since Nicodemus raised the question of natural, physical birth, Jesus was correcting him by saying, in effect, "No, Nicodemus, you must be born both naturally and spiritually." The bursting of the amniotic sac of a mother just prior to childbirth is the birth of "water." We often say of this event, "Her water broke!" Notice in v.6 Jesus reinforces this interpretation when He says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh," thus linking water with flesh. The flesh-birth is from below; the spiritual, from above. –  rhetorician Jun 27 '13 at 1:02

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"Born of water" does not stand alone here, but rather inseparably collocated with "and spirit". Just as "raining cats and dogs" refers to one rain, or "this item is our bread and butter" refers to one mainstay item, "water and the spirit" refers to one birth.

In other words, we are not to take this is "first you must be born of water and then of spirit"; rather, "unless one is born of water and spirit" in v5 is parallel to "unless one is born again" in v3.

To see that the parallelism, lets parse the two verses together (I've highlighted the differences):

    • v3: Jesus answered him
    • v5: Jesus answered him

    2.

    • v3: “Truly, truly, I say to you
    • v5: “Truly, truly, I say to you

    3.

    • v3: unless one is born again
    • v5: unless one is born of water and the Spirit

    4.

    • v3: he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
    • v5: he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Although the phrase "born of water and of the spirit" is not found in the Old Testament, we do see water and spirit both tied to personal and covenantal renewal, notably in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from fall your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 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. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)

Here water is used to explicitly symbolize cleansing from impurity, and spirit for the transformation of the heart to full obedience. All that Jesus has done here is add the concept of birth to further explain what he had said in v3.

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The assumption that "water" is "flesh" and "spirit" is "spirit" lacks support. Not to get too far into it (though it would be a great follow-up), but I would argue that what Jesus is getting at is that one who is the natural human family generated only more of the same, to be contrasted with the Spirit begetting spiritual people. In other words, one does not move from flesh to spirit, but requires instead a new birth. Nicodemus, as "teacher of Israel" should have known this (v10) from his study of the Old Testament verses like the one cited above –  Ray Oct 6 '11 at 17:12
    
In SP when there are two things one is earthly and the other is heavenly. This supports your idea that they are one baptism which is in the flesh with water and in the spirit with the Spirit. The order places the emphasis on the insufficiency of water alone. –  Bob Jones Nov 14 '11 at 2:00
    
Or perhaps it refers to baptism.... –  Daи Mar 4 '12 at 22:33

Context is the key to interpretation. You’ve heard the mantra in real-estate, “location, location, location.” Well in interpretation its, “context, context, context.” The location of a verse matters in its interpretation.

Think of the word “hand,” for instance. What does it mean? Without context “hand” could have quite a few meanings.

  • the hired hand fixed the railing
  • his hand was illegible
  • he wanted to try his hand at singing
  • I didn’t hold a good hand all evening
  • The hands read 3:25
  • give the little lady a great big hand
  • hand me the spoon, please

we can see the words meaning more clearly in context.

The Immediate Context

The phrase "born of water and Spirit" appears in Jesus’ night time conversation with Nicodimus. In John 3:3, Jesus says,

I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.

Nicodimus is dumbfounded

How can a man be born when he is old…surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!

Jesus then rephrases his earlier statement

I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of god unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

The contrast between flesh and spirit in the last verse would seem to indicate that water stands for natural birth.

Beyond the Chapter

But there’s an even broader context to John 3:5 that others pick up on. Two chapters earlier, in John 1:32-33, John the baptist testifies,

I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

Here water and Spirit are linked in the Baptist’s ministry and testimony. John baptizes with water but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. If John 3:5 is linked to this verse, water could refer to baptism (or repentance which John’s baptism is often said to represent).

A Look to the Whole Book

But there’s still a greater context which defines the meaning of water. Water isn’t simply mentioned in these two scenes. It's used everywhere in John as a metaphor and a symbol.

  • John says three times that he baptizes in water (1:26, 31, 33)
  • Jesus turns water into wine (2:1-10)
  • Jesus says we must be born of water and the spirit (3:5)
  • John baptizes at Aenon near Salim because “there was much water there.” (3:23)
  • Jesus promises the woman by the well living water (4:4-28)
  • The lame man wants to get healed in the troubled waters of Bethesda (5:7)
  • Jesus walks on water (6:19)
  • Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink (7:37-39)
  • Jesus heals blind man in pool of Siloam (9:6-7)
  • Jesus washes his disciples feet (13:4-5)
  • Water flows from Jesus' side (19:34)

With the exception of John’s baptism and Jesus walk on water, these references do not appear in Matthew, Mark or Luke. They are entirely unique to John.

Each of these scenes plays a crucial role in revealing the water’s intended meaning. John develops this meaning early in his gospel, contrasting water that is used in ritual and tradition with a higher, heavenly water offered in Jesus.

John the Baptist’s Testimony (1:19-34): John says Jesus' baptism in the Holy Spirit surpasses his baptism in water. Water here is the medium of a traditional ritual of purification. But Jesus' in a comparative and a contrasting sense baptizes with the Holy Spirit (i.e water from above).

Jesus Wedding Miracle (2:1-11): Jesus’ “water-turned-wine” is better than the choice wine/water which came before. The water which becomes wine is drawn from containers used for ritual purification. Though Jesus could presumably have reused the empty wine jars, he instead has the servants fill six waterpots which John says were “set there for the Jewish custom of purification.” Jesus surpasses this ritual water by transforming it into wine (spirit water) which the headwaiter testifies surpasses the wine that came before.

Jesus Conversation by the Well (4:4-26): Jesus’ living water is greater than Jacob's well. The well itself is a traditional site analogous to the Samaritan’s worship on the mountain. The woman points to the greatness of the well by pointing to “father” Jacob as the source and user of the water. The word “father” is again used when the topic of conversation moves from well to worship. Just as ‘father” Jacob gave the well, the Samaritan “fathers” had given them worship on the mountain. When Jesus offers the woman living water she responds by asking if he is “greater” than Jacob who gave them the well. Jesus indicates that it is by contrasting the limitations of the well water with the never-ending life-giving water he supplies. His water is "Spirit" like the true worship God seeks.

His Healing by the Pool of Bethesda (5:1-9): Jesus’ healing is greater than the troubled water in the pool of Bethesda. Once again the waters of Bethesda are linked with tradition. While the tradition mentioned in 5:3 may not be original to John, it appears to be in line with John's repeated use of water. While the man looks to the traditional water to heal him, he is powerless to reach it. Because Jesus reaches the man at his need, His power is revealed to be greater than the stirred water’s of the pool.

Jesus’ Invitation to Drink (7:37-39): Jesus' “living water” is greater than the feasts water ceremony. Jesus invitation occurs on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. On this day the High Priest poured water out in the temple as a symbol of the later day river that would flow from the temple (Ez. 47:1-12; Zech. 14:8). Jesus’ invitation and reference indicates that he is the scriptures true fulfillment. The water here is explicitly connected with the Holy Spirit (John 7:39).

The cumulative effect of these scenes indicates that there's more than one meaning given to water. Sometimes water is simply a clear physical liquid used for washing, drinking etc. However when associated with Christ, water signifies the Spirit (i.e. "living-water or water from above).

A contrast between two waters (higher and lower) fits within John's narrative's dualism. Many of John's metaphors and symbols have natural polarity. For instance John employees the imagery of light and darkness, life and death, above and below, true and false. Each refers to a separation between tangible world in which we live and the intangible realm of the Spirit. Because it's immaterial, the world “above” is separate from the world “below." For instance in John 3:12, Christ distinguishes between “earthly things” and “heavenly things” and in 8:23 He separates Himself from His opponents, stating, “You are from below I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” The higher world represents an intangible reality which man cannot perceive. The prologue asserts “No one has seen God at any time” (1:18). Yet, it also goes on to equally claim that Jesus’ physical presence “explained” or “made known” the invisible God (1:14, 18).

Through metaphors and symbols, John constructs a ladder of understanding from the lower physical world to the higher world of the Spirit. A symbol, according to ordinary sense, is “that which represents something else by virtue of an analogical relationship.” H. Levin describes it simply as “a connecting link between two different spheres.” The symbol, “points beyond itself”, and in someway “embodies that which it represents.” Thus, John takes tangible images and infuses them with a higher connotation in order to define the imperceptible world of God.

Water function within this dualism.

Reading John 3:5 in light of its context

Returning to John 3:5 we can see how this repeated contrast between two different waters fits into the phrase "born of water and the Spirit."

Most interpretations hold that water and Spirit exist as two distinct elements in the process of rebirth. The English word “and” implies two distinct things. This would certainly fit the apparent contrast between the lower water and the Spirit (higher water) in the scenes outlined above. But these scenes also make a comparison between water and Spirit and unlike the English translation, the Greek may suggest that water and Spirit are one thing and not two. C.H. Talbert states,

The construction in Greek is that of two terms joined by “and” (kai) and governed by one preposition. This Greek construction normally points to one act: e.g., Titus 3:5. If two acts were involved, normally two prepositions would occur.

Though Talbert appears confident in this translation, J. Ramsey Michaels counters with a more moderate approach. He states,

The fact that both are governed by a single preposition in Greek suggests that they are one. Yet in 1 John 5:6, the same sort of construction is immediately followed by a singling out of each element with its own preposition and definite article. The decision must therefore be made on other than grammatical grounds.

Given room to maneuver, immediate context points to water symbolizing the Spirit. “Born of water and Spirit” occurs as a reiteration of John 3:3’s phrase “born again”. The word, “again” possess two meanings. Though Nicodemus translates the word as “a second time,” the word also means “from above.” It is this later interpretation, which Jesus seems to intend. Thus Jesus, in John 3:3 and 3:5, speaks of one birth from above. According to the freedom granted by both grammar and context, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born of water from above, which is the Holy Spirit.”

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Great work! Is this your own interpretation or have you seen a study along these lines? –  Ray May 15 '13 at 23:23
    
Thanks! Not any single study. Some of it I've picked up from others but much of it comes from my own reflections on John. The best overview of the water motif I've read are Craig Koester's chapter in "Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel" and R. Alan Culpepper's Chapter on John's Implicit Commentary in the "Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel." L. P. Jones wrote a monograph called the "Symbol of Water in the Gospel of John." Some of its good but I think he misses a great deal. I haven't read but Wai-Yee Ng's "Water Symbolism in John" but from what I've see it looks really good. –  Matthew Miller May 16 '13 at 0:07
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Just re-discovered this gem of an answer: hope to have you back sometime (but no pressure intended, we understand life gets in the way :) –  Jack Douglas Dec 7 '13 at 15:26
    
@MatthewMiller, I agree with the other comments, absolutely thoughtful and convincing exposition of the text! –  JLB Feb 2 at 16:06

Water is eternal life, which is bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit (Jn 6:63). This water "washes" spiritual death away, and so we are cleansed from our spiritual death. The result is new life, because we are no longer spiritually dead, but spiritually alive. In that sense, we are born afresh (or we can say born again).

So, sins are removed with the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22). That is, blood atones for sin. The shedding of blood removes the condemnation. However, spiritual death still remains, which must be "washed away" as well, but by eternal life. In other words, blood does not take away death. (The blood is death.) Only eternal life takes away death. So, if the shedding of the blood of Jesus on the cross had left him in the grave, and he had stayed dead in the grave, then his blood sacrifice would have been in vain (1 Cor 15:14-17). In other words, eternal life takes away death, not blood. Blood takes away sin.

So we have sins, which are washed away by the blood, and spiritual death, which is washed away by water, which is eternal life (Tit 3:5). The Holy Spirit administers this eternal life to believers, and so we are born again "through water and spirit" (Jn 3:5)

Thus in the Old Testament, believers had righteousness by faith, but they did not have the gift of eternal life. (People did not speak of going UP to heaven when they died, but going DOWN into the grave.) In the New Testament, believers still are justified by faith, but with that faith comes eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which are two aspects of the New Covenant.

We see that the New Covenant was announced through the imagery of water and spirit in the Old Testament (Ezek 36:24-28; Ezek 37:14).

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To be born of water, consider:

Ephesians 5:26 (NASB)
26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,

It's the Word of God that is the water that washes us, even converting the soul. Therefore its the Word & the Spirit. How can an external thing such as water baptism cause one to be born? Its the Word & Spirit that converts the soul, not water baptism; water is used figuratively in this sense.

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How is this phrase understood? Is it a single construct (i.e. one birth of both water and Spirit)? Or are two births in view (one of water and one of Spirit)?

I believe scripture makes a division here between two distinct births...

John 1:12-13 (ESV):

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Here we see "born of God" and, in conjunction with the meaning of "born again" (gennao anothen - "born from above") in John 3.3, being born again (or born from above) addresses being born of God, while "born of water" (referring to water baptism) is another matter.

"And what does it mean to be born of water?"

To be "born of water" is to be water baptized. Now, some people do not like that, but in order to enter the Kingdom of God one MUST be water baptized.

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I edited a few things: quotes can be formatted nicely, I think the Scripture is from the ESV, and I removed your sign-off line, which is generally discouraged on Stack Exchange. If you don't like any of these changes, feel free to re-edit. Thanks for the answer! –  Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 18:11
    
Your final paragraph reminded me of a question about baptism on behalf of the dead. –  Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 18:28

Actually, after researching this more, there are multiple possible translations of this

1. Christian Baptism

C. H. Dodd reflects this interpretation when he asserts that

“the instructed Christian reader would immediately recognize a reference to Baptism, as the sacrament through which the Spirit was given to believers, and by which they were initiated into that new order of life described as the Kingdom of God, which was historically embodied in the Church.”
Dodd, Interpretation, p. 311.

Essentially, the idea is being "born of water" would have been immediate recognizable as meaning baptism. And since Jesus had been baptizing, it could be understood as this baptism.

2. John's Baptism

The argument here is that when Nicodemus heard "born of water", he would immediately think of John's baptisms, since he had been causing a stir throughout Israel. Support from this comes from here:

John 1:23 (NIV)
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'

The argument is that John baptized with water but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit.

3. Natural (Flesh) Birth

This popular and well-thought out argument is supported by the quote from Nicodemus himself as well as later parallelism of Jesus.

John 3:4 (NIV)
How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

The parallels can be drawn directly from Jesus two contiguous sentences:

John 3:5-6 (NIV)
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Clearly, being "born of water and the spirit" relates directly to bineg born of "flesh" and "spirit" in verse 6.

Finally, it gains biblical support in that the term "water" has been used in reference to female organs in Song of Songs 4:12-15.

4. Word of God

This theory maintains that there are two elements required for a person to be "born again": the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

Support for this theory are found in the following two verses:

James 1:18 (NIV)
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

1 Peter 1:23 (NIV)
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.

5. Double metaphor

Proponents of this theory state that Being "born of the water and of the spirit" are actually two ways to say the same thing. The argument is that Jesus said that you must be "born again" in previous verses and then "born of water and the spirit" in later verses. These two parallels, the argument goes, shows that being "born of water" is simply another way to say being "born again".

6. Purification

This idea states that water and spirit are purification that must take place in order to be born again. This can be illustrated by the use of water in purification rituals. Furthermore, support for this can be found in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NIV)
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

This verse shows the connection between water and the spirit in purification and the new birth.

Summary

There are six traditional views of how to view this. Two views stand out as the most likely: The natural birth (#3) and the Purificaiton (#6). These two views have the strongest support for them, both biblically and traditionally. The other views each have strong problems with their views. (I add them solely for completeness.)

source

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I think this is the best answer to this question. –  Daи Feb 13 '13 at 20:59
    
@Richard, I would like to disagree with you on the point that born or water means natural birth. Here is why it cannot be: (1). When Nicodemus said How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born! he was not reacting to born of water but born again. Jesus had not yet used the term born of water when Nicodemus said these words. (2). I don't think there's any parallelism in verses 5&6. Nicodemus is already naturally born; why would Jesus be telling him ** .. you must be naturally born ..**? –  user3558931 Aug 4 at 14:00
    
[KJV] ".. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God". The context here, a man, clearly points to one who's already gone through natural birth. –  user3558931 Aug 4 at 14:07
    
Also bear in mind that no one has a say with regards to their natural birth yet each of us can choose to accept spiritual birth. –  user3558931 Aug 4 at 14:15
    
@user3558931 You are free to choose your interpretation. I'm not picking one interpretation over the other, I'm just presenting them. I can give my opinions, but opinions aren't really useful on this site, are they? –  Richard Aug 4 at 18:31

I intended this to be in the "comments" section in response to Ray's comment ("The assumption that "water" is "flesh" and "spirit" is "spirit" lacks support"), but I exceeded the allotted 500+ characters.

Ray makes a good point in regards to Nico should have known. Could it be that Jesus' remark Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? a key clue that in order for us to understand what Jesus means by "water and Spirit" we must understand what Nico should have understood (i.e. Jewish rituals, laws, writings, etc)?

This led me to search the OT in this context and found an interesting term in the book of Numbers - the term being Water of Separation (Numbers 19:9,13,20, and 21)

It appears as though water of separation was some type of purification deal - in Num 19:9 it says ... it is a purification for sin (KJV).

I am very curious if Jesus was alluding to this "water of separation" knowledge that Nico should have had being a head-honcho typa teacher of the Pharisee's.

If there is a connection with "water of separation" and the "water" that Jesus speaks of here in John 3, then I think we have very helpful insight that "water and Spirit" is speaking of one "spiritual" event as opposed to two events - i.e. water=natural birth and Spirit=spiritual birth.

Sorry if I'm going down a separate rabbit-hole here, but I can't help but think of the 1 John 5:6-8 that Jack Douglas brought into that conversation. In attempt to make a connection with John 3 and 1John 5 in regards to the "water" term, it seems to flow very well when you think of water and blood in the perspective of the Jewish ceremonies - purification (water) and sacrifice (blood).

To clarify my main point - Jesus' comment in John 3:10 leads me to believe that we must read John 3 in the mindset and perspective of how a Pharisee would infer the term "water" to mean.

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