Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That 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 the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:5-8).

There have been a number of suggested interpretations to this verse. The question revolves around the identity of the water in verse 5. What does it mean to be "born of water"? Several answers have been put forth.

Water Baptism

Those who hold to a baptismal regeneration point to this verse as indicating that one is saved by the physical act of baptism. The problem is that the Scriptures are clear elsewhere to say that we are saved by grace through faith and apart from any outward ritualism such as circumcision or baptism.

An alternate view sees the water, not only in a literal sense, but also and primarily as symbolic for the cleansing power that is represented in baptism.

Physical Birth

This view sees Jesus as making a contrast between the physical birth versus the spiritual birth and identifies being "born of water" as a reference to the physical birth. One obvious weakness of this view is that there is no precedence (either Jewish or otherwise) for identifying physical birth with water. Over against this argument is Isaiah 48:1 that speaks of Israel coming from the waters of Judah (the KJV follows the literal Hebrew text).

The Word of God

This view looks to passages such as Ephesians 5:26 (cleansed by the washing of water with the word) and 1 Peter 1:23 (you have been born again... by the word of God) and sees this water as a reference to the Scriptures.

The Holy Spirit

This view translates the word "and" (kai) as "even" to say that one is born of water, even the Spirit. This view has the advantage of an Old Testament connection that would have been understandable to Nicodemus (Ezekiel 36:25-27 speaks of how God would sprinkle clean water and give a new heart and a new spirit to His people).

Which of these views is correct? They all have some good points to suggest, though there is an obvious problem with that view calling for baptismal regeneration. With that exception, I believe that they all have a valid point insofar as they all point one way or another to the purifying work of God as promised in the Old Testament.

I personally believe that the reference of being born of water points to the saving act of purification that comes to us via the cross and which is represented by water baptism, brought to us through the Scriptures and applied to us by the Holy Spirit, resulting in the new birth.


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