Side-Notes on John 3:5
Water and Spirit?
by JMT

According to Lesslie Newbigin[1] and Tom Wright[2], the water in “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5) refers to the baptism begun by John the Baptist (1:24-34) and continued by Jesus’ disciples (3:22-27; 4:1-2). Ridderbos[3] makes a case for the same point in his commentary. Happily, none of them interpret water as referring to the sacrament of baptism, much less as baptismal regeneration (water-baptism = new birth) or physical birth (water = amniotic fluid).

While we agree on what water is not, we differ on what water is. From a grammatical-historical point of view, their interpretation of water as John’s baptism seems plausible, especially within the smaller context of John 1-4. However, from a redemptive-historical point of view, their interpretation is too near-sighted and narrowly focused to do justice to the larger context of the OT canon.

Granted, Jesus was baptized by John. More than likely, he wanted all Israel (including Nicodemus) to heed John’s prophetic message and submit to baptism at the Jordan river. Does that mean water-baptism was the topic of conversation with Nicodemus? Not necessarily. I would argue that Jesus’ emphasis on the person and work of the Holy Spirit blows that theory out of the water.

I share the view of those who reach beyond John’s baptism and read Jesus’ words in light of the sacred writings of the OT.[4] Jesus expected Nicodemus — a teacher of Israel and a devout theologian — to understand “born of water and Spirit” as referring back to God’s promises revealed through the prophets. For example, it is written in Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. (Ezekiel 36:25-29 ESV)

Here, water and Spirit refer to God’s sovereign and gracious work of cleansing his people, changing their hearts, and causing them to walk in a new life of obedience to God. (Notice that God is the one who sprinkles the water, not a prophet, priest, or pastor.) All these promises God intended to fulfill in the Christ.

Also, it is written in Isaiah:

Your dead shall live;
their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust,
awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:19 cp Ezekiel 37 ESV)

From Jesus’ point of view, Nicodemus and Israel were exiles in the world. They were as dead as dry bones. They were not just weak and sick but dead. They had no life in them. That is why it was necessary for them to be born of God, from above, of water and the Spirit.

According to Jesus, Nicodemus should have known all this and understood what Jesus meant by “born of water and Spirit.” After all, he was a teacher of Israel and a devout theologian. But, like many of us, he did not understand the new birth. (3:7, 11, cp Eccl. 11:5)

So how could an old man and a whole community experience such a supernatural rebirth? By going down to the Jordan river, submitting to John’s water-baptism, and waiting for the wind to blow? No. By being born of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man? No.

They needed God to do for them by his Spirit what they were not able to do for themselves by the flesh.

They needed the Spirit to come from above and birth them anew; to breathe in them the breath of life; and to blow them into union and communion with the One who was truly born from above — Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. (3:13 cp 17:20-24)

They needed the Spirit of God to breathe life into them and raise them from the dead.

And so do we. To be born of water and the Spirit is to be resurrected from death to life.


[1] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1982. Print. (p 39)
[2] Wright, N. T. John for Everyone. Chapters 1-10 Part 1 Part 1. London; Louisville, KY: SPCK ; Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Print. (p 30)
[3] Ridderbos, Herman N. The Gospel according to John: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997. Print. (pp 127-128)
[4] I have held this view for many years, but it is not original with me. It is mentioned by Ridderbos (p 132), by Carson and Beale (p 434 in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament), and by John Piper in a sermon on John 3 (start 15 min 45 sec mark, end 19 min 56 sec mark ). Finally, James B. Jordan offers an intriguing perspective on born from above posted here. I do not endorse everything he says, but I encourage you to read it as a healthy theological exercise.