Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John 3:5 Water and Spirit

“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”        (John 3:5 ESV)

The wisdom of the scriptures is inexhaustible. It is not like other books that we can read a few times and have the material mastered. In some cases we might even reject a particular interpretation only to notice something later that makes us change our mind. John 3:5 is an example of that kind of text for me.

John is my favorite Gospel and I have studied it and taught it multiple times. As a result of my study of the structure of the first few chapters, the recurring theme of spiritual birth contrasted with the natural, and the immediate context of this verse I had concluded that water represented the natural birth and that Christ was explaining that an additional spiritual birth was necessary contrasting that with the physical birth. While I believe that Christ was explaining the need for a spiritual birth I no longer believe that water should here be understood as a reference to natural birth. In my initial interpretation I neglected to pay close enough attention to the grammatical structure of this verse. The goal of any study is to find the plain meaning of the text but we must be careful to pay attention to grammatical and structural details because if our interpretation of the “plain meaning” is correct it will be supported by those details.

Most translations render the second part of this verse as “born of water and the Spirit”. In Greek, however, the word for Spirit has no article. Literally it is “born of water and spirit (or wind)” not “born of water and the Spirit (or wind)”. Translators include the article “the” because it is assumed that spirit is a reference to The Holy Spirit. This makes it sound as though there may be two births, one by water and one by the spirit that are required. The absence of the article, however, would normally indicate that the preposition “of” takes as its object the phrase “water and spirit” as a unit. The grammatical implication is that there is one birth comprised “of” both water and spirit.

Nicodemus was asking the question how can a man be born again and this is precisely the question that Jesus answers. The natural birth is assumed and Jesus is here giving Nicodemus information about the nature of the second birth and he explains that it is a birth of water and spirit. What is meant by this? There have been a number of explanations given but by far the most common and ancient is that this is a reference to baptism. There is a sense in which baptism is related to this passage which I will address a bit later but I think it is unlikely that one can make a strong case for this as an explicit reference to the act of Christian baptism on a grammatical-historical basis. There are two other clues that I think help us to answer the question without resorting to allegorizing the reference to water to refer to Christian baptism.

The first clue is to be found a couple verses earlier where Jesus tells Nicodemus “…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (v.3) The word “again” here is the word anwqen (an-o-then) which can mean either again or from above and may be purposely ambiguous similar to Jesus’ later play on the word for wind/spirit. This is important because the comments in verse 5 are a clarification of this statement. Whatever born of water and spirit mean they are an explanation of born again/from above. The wordplay associated with anwqen in light of the statement in the introduction to the Gospel that “…to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”(Jn 1:12-13) indicates that Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus that this is a spiritual birth initiated by God Himself. Jesus’ clarification and His further explanation of the nature of spiritual birth in verses 6-8 are designed to show Nicodemus that his own efforts and the pharisaical system were insufficient to achieve what he sought.

The next clue, however, is perhaps even more helpful to our understanding of what exactly the phrase “water and spirit” refers to. In verse 10 Jesus rebukes Nicodemus saying “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” This most certainly indicates that this teaching can be found in the Old Testament. Jesus is pointing out that God had already revealed the answer to these questions in the scriptures which Nicodemus possessed and should have been familiar with.

The figures of water and wind(spirit) are common in the Old Testament but there are a few places in particular where the context might be applicable to the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. The first are those that appear in the context of God’s future blessing of Israel as His people. For example notice the relation between water and spirit in Isaiah:

“But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the LORD's,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD's,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.”
(Isaiah 44:1-5 ESV)

Or the relation and wordplay between wind, breath, and spirit (same word) in Ezekiel:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
(Ezekiel 37:9-14 ESV)

The most likely reference, however, that Jesus’ words should have called attention to for Nicodemus were those of Ezekiel chapter 36 where the symbols of water and spirit are connected with spiritual cleansing and renewal associated with the promise of the New Covenant. This passage brings together each of these references within the context of The Promise and thus makes sense as a response encompassing the relationship between spiritual regeneration as well as the coming of the Kingdom of God.

“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.”
(Ezekiel 36:25-28 ESV)

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom he must be spiritually regenerated and that this regeneration is a cleansing and renewing work initiated by God. It cannot be inherited, earned or worked for. God Himself prepares His people to enter His kingdom and it is God who redeems them just as He promised He would do in the Old Testament. He was reminding Nicodemus of the promise of the New Covenant. Water and spirit in John 3:5 both refer to regeneration. It is one new birth that God initiates cleansing His people and preparing in them a new heart so that they may see the Kingdom of God. 

I mentioned before that the most prominent and ancient view of this text has been to see it as a reference to baptism. Although I do not think this passage is literally talking about baptism there is a sense in which baptism can be seen in relation to this passage. The spiritual cleansing that is referenced by Jesus’ use of the phrase “water and spirit” is expressed in baptism. When we are baptized we are proclaiming that we have been crucified with Christ, and cleansed of our sins. The rite of baptism is a figure or sign of the deeper spiritual reality of the regeneration that Christ is referring to. This is why in scripture baptism is associated with the washing of regeneration, a clear conscious toward God, and the forgiveness of sins. Not because the act or the water have any spiritual power but because in baptism we testify to what the Lord has done in us. Baptism is therefore the confession that the requirement which Jesus explained to Nicodemus has been met in us through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. 

I wish I could share these insights with all those with whom I have previously studied with or taught on this passage. I praise God though that by His grace I continue to be led into the truth and continue to see marvelous things in His Word. I pray that the same is true for you as well.  

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