What Does “Born of Water and the Spirit” Mean in John 3:5?

The question to ask is this: where do “water” and “the Spirit” come together in the Old Testament in a context that promises a new beginning?

God is promising through the prophet Ezekiel, six centuries before Jesus, that a time is coming when there will be a transformative new beginning, characterized by spectacular cleansing symbolized by water that washes away all impurities and idols, and by the powerful gift of the Spirit that transforms the hearts of people. That is what is required if people are to see and enter the kingdom of God.

The question is important, because it lies at the heart of Jesus’s explanation of “born again,” of new birth, of regeneration. When Jesus first introduces the category (John 3:3), Nicodemus clearly doesn’t understand what Jesus means (3:4 NIV): “How can someone be born when they are old?” he asks. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Many people think the question Nicodemus poses shows that he is a rather dimwitted literalist. But that’s almost certainly too harsh. You don’t get to be called “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10—possibly a title) if you can’t spot the odd metaphor. When he hears Jesus say that to enter the kingdom one must be “born again,” I suspect Nicodemus understands Jesus to mean that we are not good enough to enter the kingdom: we must start over, have a different origin, spring from a different life. Nicodemus thinks Jesus is going too far: people can’t really start over or claim a new life, boast of a new birth, or enjoy a new beginning. Omar Khayyam had it right: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Most of us have faced moments when we wish we could “start over,” or at least expunge some of our worst sins and faults. “Oh, for a man to arise in me / That the man I am may no longer be,” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote. Or, as John Clare said, “If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.” Nicodemus perceives the futility of insisting that we must have a new beginning: it’s a bit late to demand a new beginning when we’ve made such a mess of the voyage (John 3:4, 9). And if that’s what is required to get into the kingdom, there is no hope: “How can someone be born when they are old?”

But far from backing down, Jesus repeats the point (John 3:5), yet he does so in such a way that he expands on “born again,” turning it into “born of water and the Spirit,” and thus provides some explanation. That’s why it is so important to understand what Jesus means by this expression.

So what does he mean?

Unsatisfactory Proposals

Several suggestions have been put forward that turn out to be rather unsatisfactory. Some propose that Jesus is specifying two births: one must undergo not only natural birth (“born of water”) but also spiritual birth (“born of . . . the Spirit”). People must not only be born, but must be born “again.” There are two primary problems with this interpretation: (1) It is unbearably trite. The first part is saying not much more than that to get into the kingdom, you must exist: you must be born, you must be here. That means all the weight of Jesus’s answer is carried in the second part, “born of . . . the Spirit,” making us wonder what the first part, “born of water,” is contributing to Jesus’s explanation.

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