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?
"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
- v3: “Truly, truly, I say to you
- v5: “Truly, truly, I say to you
- v3: unless one is born again
- v5: unless one is born of water and the Spirit
- 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.
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".
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.
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.)
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 Nicodemus. In John 3:3, Jesus says,
I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.
Nicodemus 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 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 some way “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.”
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.
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.
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.
In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the kingdom one must be "born of water and the Spirit". What does 'to be born of water' mean?
Mat 3:11 (NIV) (John the Baptist:)“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Acts 3:19,20 (NIV) "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus." [Gal 4:19]
To be born of water means to turn around from ones old carnal life and live a new life of repentance.
The main symbolic event in the Old Testament that covered this was the crossing of the Red Sea. [1 Cor 10:2]
When John the Baptist decreased in importance, and eventually left the scene, the praxis of baptism was taken over by the Christian Church. [John 3:26-30]
An answer in the simplest terms. In the Greek "born of water and of the Spirit" is whats known as a "Hendiadys." Water and Spirit are in fact the same thing. Jesus was preparing Nicodemus to understand that the new birth is not one of flesh but one of the spirit. We are already born of water in the natural birth. So Jesus adds the condition "unless" which is also an indicator that he is not talking about a Mikvah or water baptism ritual.
Jesus speaks of "born of water " as recorded in John 3:5.
John 3:5 ( NIV)
Jesus answered, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
What is this water? Is it literal water or a figurative expression?
Regenerative water in John 3:5
Literal H20 ?
Metaphorical H20 ?
The interesting fact is that the Bible never speaks of a literal water as the source of the new birth. Rather, other texts shows that the it is only the Triune God who makes someone born again by grace through faith alone in Christ by hearing the word about Christ (i.e. the Good News).This is monergism in itself.
Titus 3:4-6 (NIV)
4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,
Ephesians 5:26 (NIV)
to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,
Romans 10:17 (NIV)
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.
Galatians 3:2 (NIV)
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?
According to the context of the text in question, the water Jesus speaks of is not a literal water because he is talking about a spiritual birth.
John 3:5-6 (NIV)
5Jesus 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.
Water does not give birth to anything.The Holy Spirit effectuates the rebirth, new birth or regeneration.
Therefore, the expression "born of water" in John 3:5 should mean a mere abstract symbol of spiritual cleansing which is in actuality, a concrete work of God in a believer.
Colossians 2:12 (NIV)
12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
There is a strong association made in the scriptures between water, regeneration and renewing in holy spirit:
KJV Titus 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
Here the "word" (IE: "message" or "utterance") is how the washing is being done, suggesting that the water baptism of John and the twelve was the shadow of the "operation of God":
KJV Eph 5:2 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,
Peter also associates being born again with both washing and the "word":
KJV 1 Peter 1:23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
We should note also that "word of God" (or "utterance of God", "message of God") are possibly referring to Christ.
So I am inclined to believe that what John had in mind was being "regenerated" by "washing" by "the word" (or rather, "the utterance of God" aka "Christ") in holy spirit.
I notice also the revival of the dry tree:
KJV Ezekiel 17:24 And all the trees will know that it is I, the LORD, who cuts the tall tree down and makes the short tree grow tall. It is I who makes the green tree wither and gives the dead tree new life. I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will do what I said!”
It would involve water which is now connected to the new covenant:
[Eze 36:25-27 KJV] 25 Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do [them].
In the next chapter the bones are very dry (because they are dead):
[Eze 37:11-14 KJV] 11 Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. 12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And ye shall know that I [am] the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, 14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken [it], and performed [it], saith the LORD.
God revives the dry bones and breaths life back into them. This is the picture of John raising Israel from the dead, and John is intimately connected with the water.
So to be born of water, in this context refers to participating in the new covenant, being part of the resurrection of Israel in Jerusalem at that time and to personally be washed in Mikveh and in the message (who is Christ) and raised to new life by the renewal by the spirit.
Water and John 3:5
In order to study the meaning of “water and/also/even/as well as spirit” in John 3:5, I suggest to look at this from two angles. First, a linguistic word study, and then from the vantage point of communication theory. The reason for my “and/also/even/as well as” is that the Greek kai can have any of these meanings.
The word “spirit” is not a problem, since it has its normal sense. A spiritual birth (born of spirit) is different from a natural birth. The problem is what is meant by “water”.
When I look at how the word “water” is used in the Bible, I find 4 different usages:
- Literal water
- Water as a symbol
- Water as a metaphor
- Water as a metonym
Let me here restrict myself to the 21 times we find “water” in John’s gospel, because he has all four usages. The discussion can therefore be applied more widely.
- Literal water occurs the following verses: 1:26,31,33; 2:7,9; 4:7,13,15,46; 5:7; 13:5; 19:34.
The last one is the blood and water from the dead body of Jesus. It is likely that the “water” here refers to blood serum, which is a watery fluid separated from the blood plasma.
- When the literal water refers to baptism, it also has a symbolic meaning of spiritual cleansing, so 1:26,31,33 can at the same time be listed under the symbolic usage of water.
There are no other instances of symbolic usage of water in this gospel, but of course, the word baptism implies water in many cases and has a similar symbolic meaning.
- Water as a metaphor is used in 4:10,11,14,15 and 7:38.
In order to show that Jesus is not talking about literal water, he calls it “living water”. This also means fresh water in Hebrew, but it is more likely in these contexts that it means “life-giving water” where the life is spiritual rather than literal, since Jesus is speaking to people who already have the natural life. Meaning-based translations like the GNB and CEV call it life-giving water.
The interchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is illustrative both in terms of the meaning of “water” and the communication strategy that Jesus employs. Let me quote most of John 4:7-15 here from the NIV with sense number in parenthesis. I am doing this as background for the study of John 3:5:
When a Samaritan woman came to draw (1)water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” … The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” … Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living (3)water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this (1 and 3?)living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this (1)water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the (3)water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the (3)water I give them will become in them a spring of (3)water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this (1 and 3?)water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw (1)water.”
(Notice that NIV translated the kai with “as did also”.) Jesus introduced “living water” which is a totally new concept to the woman, so she does not understand that water is used as a metaphor for a new spiritual life. Like literal water is needed to sustain literal life, spiritual water is needed to give and sustain spiritual life. The woman’s answer shows that she is thinking of literal water, which Jesus could not give her, since he had nothing to draw water with.
Jesus does not answer her questions directly (which he rarely does), but he has an obligation to explain to her what he meant by living water, since she did not understand. He points out the difference between literal water(1) and the spiritual water (3) to help her understand that he was not talking about literal water or fresh water. The woman’s answer shows she still has a very unclear picture of that “living water”, since she is talking about not needing to come back all the time for literal water. She is thinking of literal, human thirst rather than spiritual thirst. I am not looking at the word “thirst” here, but like many other words used in John, it has both a literal and spiritual sense.
- Water as a metonym is used 3:5 as far as I can see.
A metonym means that one word is used to stand for an associated idea. This is not a common usage of “water”, although metonyms are used hundreds of times in the Bible, and quite often misunderstood. There is one other place where John uses the same metonym, namely in 1 John 5:6-7. It will take too long here to argue for this, but it is a crucial part of the argumentation. The idea is that the amniotic fluid is used as a metonym for birth, because the child comes out of or through that water at birth. Some of the arguments are available here: Jesus came through water and blood.
Let me now briefly address communication theory.
A good place to start is the Cooperative Principle, first formulated by Paul Grice in 1975 and developed by Sperber and Wilson in 1995 in their ground-breaking book on Relevance Theory. The linked Wikipedia articles are very helpful introductions and have more references.
The Cooperative Principle is further explained by four maxims:
- Maxim of quality - Try to make your contribution one that is true, based on evidence
- Maxim of quantity – As informative as required, but not more
- Maxim of relevance - Be relevant (Think about what the addressee already knows and needs to know)
- Maxim of manner – Be perspicuous (Avoid obscurity and ambiguity)
A speaker can both flout and violate a maxim. If they violate a maxim, they are not cooperative, but they can flout a maxim for a specific reason without being uncooperative. Jesus often flouts the maxim of manner for the purpose of memorability and creating spiritual thirst and interest to know more.
I suggest that this is what Jesus did in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman when he introduced the concept of “living water”. He did exactly the same when he said to Nicodemus in 3:3 “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Let us have the text in front of us:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “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!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You(plural) must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
The statement ”they must be born again” flouts the maxim of manner in order to introduce the fundamental concept of being “born again”. Like the woman at the well, Nicodemus does not understand. He takes “born again” in a literal sense rather than spiritual. Jesus is obligated by the cooperative principle to explain what he meant. The first part of the explanation repeats the requirement for entering the kingdom of God, but adds a bit: “they are born of water and spirit.” Would this be enough for Nicodemus to see the contrast between literal birth and spiritual birth? Maybe not, so Jesus explains that literal birth is about a human mother giving birth to human child (old/known information for comparison), and that spiritual birth is about the Spirit giving birth to a spiritual child (new information). So, Jesus repeats. “You must all be born again.” Jesus is not saying that “you must be born of water.” He is saying that it is not enough to go through the water birth=literal birth, but another birth is needed after the water birth, the spiritual birth.
In conclusion, it seems to me that linguistics and communication theory provide the best answer to what Jesus probably meant. I am aware of the common baptism interpretation, but this does not fit the context. Nor does the cleansing aspect of baptism/water fit the context. The “water” is literal, but used as a metonym to point to an associated idea.
Much more could be said, for instance, that English and Greek have a “both…and” construction which is not in Hebrew. As a translator, I would suggest “born from both water and spirit” or maybe “born from water and also from spirit.”
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.
First I would like to congratulate the other members that have answered, it appears that many get close to the meaning, however the direct answer comes from understanding Jesus and his use of metaphors. Then it becomes obvious what he means.
The original perspective of the word Spirit
The old translators where wise in there decision to translate pneuma as spirit for it was translated this way to help the people realize the new attitude that one would accomplish by the birth into the "breath".
Lets substitute the word breath for the word spirit to see how this is true
“Likewise the breath also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Breath Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27 Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the breath is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
Paul uses the word pneuma many times in Romans 8, and although every instance of the word pnuema can get replaced with the word breath to give a clearer understanding of what the Bible means. I choose Romans 8 since he uses it a lot here and space to give a detailed analysis would overwhelm the patience of the moderators.
- Here we can see the difficulty breathing.
“And behold, a breath seizes him, and he suddenly cries; it convulses him so that he foams at the mouth; and it departs from him with great difficulty, bruising him. ” (Luke 9:39)
- Here we can see the last breath.
“And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My breath Having said this, He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:46)
- The giving of the Holy Breath
And when he had said this, he breathed (en, "in" and physaō, "breathe, blow") on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Breath (pneuma)." (John 20:22)
In English we know these Greek words through Today's Medical Expressions
- Emphysema (A condition of shortness of breath) (en, "in" and physaō, "breathe, blow")
- Pneumonia (An infection of the lungs) (pneuma, "breath")
Also from air tools
- Pneumatic air tools (pneuma, "breath")
Most likely all the original writers and their original audience would understand that pneuma meant breath based on their experience with the Greek language. We can create a similarity in English if I said, "Everybody on this team wear a blue hat" then later it got translated to "Everybody on this team wore the colored hat". You would understand that I meant blue when I told you blue. Sure blues a color, just as a spirits a breath. Yet also orange is so a color, and ghosts are so a spirit. Yet hearing blue they would not thought of orange, just like hearing breath they would not thought of ghosts.
The attitude of Love!
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 RSVCE)
Now to establish this Love!
That God is the word and the one born of the breath is in the spirit. So the wisdom of God through the ancients have given us this great connection, and from this connection we can establish his meaning!
For the words that Jesus was speaking was both spirit and life. And it's the spirit that teaches us all things not words not taught by human wisdom. And the Spirit was poured on all flesh. Now here we can taste some logic if all things learned come from the spirit, and people obviously understand different things then we have a proof that everyone has the spirit!
The Spirit and Understanding
Now in truth many have understanding, and the spirit has given that understanding to all those that have understanding. So how does one gain even more understanding!?!
The word and the breath
Many times the bible uses a concept of reaping and sowing, and Jesus sends us out with the intention to reap. He even prays that God send out harvesters. Now even simple logic helps us understand that reaping and harvesting gives us gain. And that those who do reap gain a wage, a wage that leads to everlasting life.
In opposition to an earlier decree of 120 years because we rejected him. And when we stop "rejecting him" we can get gathered together and Be of one mind. Therefore we can see that to Be born of the spirit means that we have joined him and we are in him and he in us since Christ within us.
Then what does the water mean?
Now the metaphor water gets split into two categories. The one of God, and one not of God. To Be born of the water means to Be born of the water that comes from both God and not from God and to trust that God will sort it out. The adversarial sayings and the loving sayings of correction.
Two types of water IN : One type of water OUT
All have the spirit, however what defines one as having the "Holy Spirit" its that out of our mouth we speak only clean things. This can only occur when the water of Jesus's words has been consumed. For until the water gets consumed we rejected the testimonies of what was seen and known. For those that do what Jesus told them and listen will hear and see what takes place because what was spoken learning the difference between the fresh water and the salt. Thereby not releasing the speech of error, and instead binding it within ourselves. Freeing us from the curse of the discernment of Function and Error.
Jesus tells us to be of good salt we listen to the salt water, and we hear the salt water. Some when they do not understand choose to reject the word and find error in what was said to maintain their level of pride. Then they say what they see as error losing the salt within themselves. However Jesus explains that for peace we should bind up the statement of error and burn it away.
Directly earlier then his explanation with the parable of the weeds. He explained the casting out of demons (the statements of errors). It started with the Pharisees claiming that by the power of the prince of demons he had this power. He responds that disagreement with the self leads to collapse and acting like an adversary to your adversary never gets the self to understanding. Then to get the speakers understanding into the head of the "self adversarial head", we must first "bind up the strong man" then we can "successfully get through"(διά) and "seize"(ἁρπάζω) the speakers understanding. For the one who's against the word's spoken to them are against the word, and he who does not gather in the understanding given by the word scatters the word.
The Direct concept of Being Born of the Spirit and the Water
That when any words get spoken to us we should breath, resist the urge to say error about the correction that what was said, we should contemplate what was told to us, and try to understand.
Exposition of John 3:3-21
Only when one thinks again about what was spoken to them, will they have the chance to gain understanding. Only when a person remains silent and considers what was told to them will they even get the chance to understand what was told to them, that without this contemplation they will not see the understanding. That which gets thought out using the mouth comes from the mouth, and that which gets thought out in the mind comes from the mind. The mind can think in any direction that it wants, and we can hear the sound of the mind when it's spoken, yet none can know the thoughts in this direction or in that unless told. We speak of what we know and what we have seen yet what we say gets rejected. If said things about what was seen got rejected, how can a person accept my understandings?. No one ever looked and read my mind, the only one that understands are the words that I send out of my mouth. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must what gets said be lifted up. That who believes what comes from my mind to my mouth will receive everlasting life. That the thought loved the world and sent the thought out as a spoken word that whoever believes in what was said should not perish but have eternal life. For the thought spoke into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes what was said is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only birth of the thought. And this is the judgment, that the thought has been revealed into the world, and men loved confusion rather than the understanding, because their deeds were in error. For every one who does wrong hates the understanding, and does not come to the understanding, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the understanding, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in thought.
Receiving the Holy Spirit through belief in the Name
As God pointed out there are many passages that deal with people receiving the Holy Spirit. So I'll do my best to appeal to God, yet in Love for the other listeners perhaps he will allow a list of mentioning of verses found here.
Now here we find an important concept since so many people got "born of the spirit" and have died and Jesus said that if they has this they would never die. How does this resolve itself without making Jesus to look like a liar?
So all those people may have been born of the spirit but they did not remain or continued to get birthed into the spirit over and over again. Otherwise they would be alive. For we all must be a living sacrifice, and sacrifice our son of man or said not so nicely we all need to shut up and listen to what God tells us and believe him to the perspective, which I do not have time to describe, but God will give.