What Jesus Meant by “Water and the Spirit”

(Photo: Unsplash)

This post was first published in December, 2018. —ed.

There’s nothing we can do to earn our way into God’s kingdom. We need God to do something to us.

That truth demolishes every religious system outside of Christianity. And that is the sobering reality Jesus used to initiate His evangelistic encounter with Nicodemus—a man who had devoted his whole life to earning favor with God through his own pious efforts.

To anyone who lacked Nicodemus’s familiarity with the Old Testament, Christ’s words in John 3:5–7 would have created confusion.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” (John 3:5–7)

In fact, many Bible students who examine this passage are confused by it. Some have suggested that when Jesus spoke of “water,” He was speaking of baptism—and some of them then interpret this to be a statement about the necessity of water baptism as a prerequisite for regeneration. But John’s baptism could not have been a means of regeneration, because it signified an already-repentant heart, which is a fruit of regeneration. Christian baptism (likewise a symbol, not a means, of regeneration) had not even been instituted yet. So the idea of baptism is utterly foreign to this passage.

Some commentators suggest that “water” is a reference to the amniotic fluid that signals the onset of physical birth, and they therefore believe Jesus was describing two distinct births in verse 5—physical birth (“water”), and spiritual birth (“the Spirit”). A closer look, however, shows that verse 5 simply restates verse 3 in different words. Notice the parallelism: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, emphasis added); and “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5, emphasis added). To be “born again” is the same thing as being “born of water and the Spirit.” The parallelism is deliberate, and the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” is simply Jesus’ explanation of the second birth. In order to understand the expression “water and the Spirit,” we have to ask how Nicodemus would have understood it.

There are two famous passages in the Old Testament where the words water and Spirit are brought together in a way that makes sense of this passage. One is Isaiah 44:3, which uses a poetic parallelism to equate the two terms, by making water a symbol of the Holy Spirit: “I will pour out  water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring.” The Holy Spirit is frequently depicted in the Old Testament as being poured out like water (cf. Proverbs 1:23Joel 2:28–29Zechariah 12:10). So to a Jewish teacher steeped in the language of the Old Testament, the idea of being “born of water and the Spirit” would evoke the idea of an outpouring of God’s Spirit—which is precisely what Jesus was saying.

But the key Old Testament text on this—the one I’m convinced Jesus was alluding to, and the one that almost certainly came to Nicodemus’s mind—was an important and familiar passage: Ezekiel 36:25–27. There the Lord is affirming the promise of the new covenant to Israel, and He says,

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.

That passage speaks of regeneration, the spiritual awakening of a dead soul. And that is the very truth Jesus was pressing upon Nicodemus. He was confronting this leading Pharisee with the truth that he needed a whole new heart—new life; not just a cosmetic makeover or another ritual added to an already-oppressive system of pharisaical spiritual disciplines, but a wholesale spiritual renewal so vast and dramatic that it can only be described as a second birth. With Ezekiel 36 as context, Jesus’ juxtaposition of water and Spirit makes perfect sense. He was intentionally pointing Nicodemus to the familiar truth of that key promise about the new covenant.

To borrow a precisely parallel New Testament expression, water and Spirit are best understood as a reference to “the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

Christ emphasized that spiritual rebirth is wholly a work of God, not the result of human effort: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Jesus was merely stating a truth which, on reflection, ought to be self-evident. Flesh begets flesh. Living beings all reproduce “after their kind” (Genesis 1:24). By the very nature of things, therefore, spiritual life cannot be the fruit of human achievement, a fact that contradicts every form of works-religion, including the fundamental belief system of the Pharisees.

In all likelihood Nicodemus, thoroughly familiar with Ezekiel’s prophecy, now understood exactly what Jesus was telling him. But, as we’ll see next time, understanding isn’t enough—for Nicodemus or for anyone else.

Editor's Picks