Born of Water and the Spirit

John 3:3-8 (English Standard Version)
Jesus answered 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? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The idea of Christian rebirth is found most frequently in the Gospel of John. It is from John that we get the idea of being “Born Again.” In fact out of the 6 occurrences of the Greek word gennan (the term that John uses to describe rebirth from God) in John FIVE of them occur in the short passage above. So what does it mean?

Jesus uses 5 parallel sayings to refer to this one idea:

“born from above“ in 3:3
“born from water and Spirit“ in 3:5
“born from the Spirit“ in 3:6
“born from above“ in 3:7
“born from the Spirit“ in 3:8

Out of these Five sayings one of them doesn’t fit as neatly…
Can you guess which one?

If you said “born from water and Spirit“ in 3:5 you are right!

Born of spirit fits pretty well. Most people will explain it as some form of the life of God [however whether that is the Holy Spirit, God in essence (John 4:24), the words of Jesus (John 6:63), or simply the life of a Child of God is still debated].

The real problem in understanding this passage comes with trying to grasp what John was talking about when he said “Bord from water.” My whole life I have heard this passage explained in so many different ways I didn’t know what to do with it. Perhaps you’ve heard a few of them yourself:

1) Water is being contrasted negatively with Spirit. John the Baptist baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Spirit. Another hallmark of this view is a removal of the parallelism in this section. However suggestion fails to notice the fact that “water and Spirit” are governed by one preposition and must be viewed as referring to one entity.

2) Water is a reference to the baptism of John, and it’s a good thing. My question in this understanding is: why would Jesus tell Nicodemus that he needed to enlist in the followers of John the Baptist? Another question that may be even more important is: why would the the writer of John give such emphasis on John’s baptism?

3) Water refers to Christian baptism. For this to be the case the passage would have to be anachronistic, which is not out of the question. I have to say i am skeptical of this idea though. The Gospel keeps separate that which is pre-resurrection and that which is post-resurrection (e. g., 2:21-22 and 7:39). Also note that the author does not make baptism a prerequisite for entering the kingdom or having eternal life at any other point.

4) Water is to be understood of physical birth. I’ve heard this one a few times. It means one should be born physically (through semen and/or amniotic fluid) and spiritually. This makes the verse a parallel to the verse that follows, but is a little weird.

5) The passage is using the water to indicate semen like above HOWEVER it’s not a physical seed but a “spiritual seed.”

6) “Water and Spirit” is a hendiadys. John “pairs in tension” frequently. In these pairs the word “And” (kai in greek) indicates the first word or concept is additional explanation or explanatory material which describes the second word of concept which is the more important one. In this structure the second word is seminal and defines and explains the first. In this view John does not mean anything different with “water and Spirit” than he means with “Spirit” in 3:6 and 8. Interestingly enough the Hebrew Bible and Judaism associate “water” and “Spirit” in describing the life-giving work of God. (See Isa 32:15; 44:3; 59:19; Ezek 36:25-27; Zech 12:10; 1QS 3:7-9; 4:21; 1QH 16:12. See also 1 Cor 12:13 and Titus 3:5.)

So what do you think? Which of these 6 ideas makes the most sense to you?

//special thanks to Klyne Snodgrass who put a great deal of this information together…

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