Monday, November 16, 2009

Born of water and the Spirit - John 3:5

"Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God"

I used to believe that in the phrase "of water and the Spirit" Jesus was most likely making comparison between the "waters" of natural childbirth and spiritual rebirth. After all, Nicodemus asked the question about entering the mother's womb a second time, right?
However, after further study (and yes, a little introductory education in NT Greek was helpful), I clearly see that this cannot be the case. The phrase is most likely entirely referring to a single entity - baptism in my opinion. It is, by far, the easiest and most natural read of the text. Because they share the same preposition "of", it is HIGHLY IMPROBABLE that it is referring to two separate entities. If Jesus was intending to refer to two entities, the Gospel writer (John) would have either:
1. used two prepositions ("of water and of the Spirit"), or
2. used a comparison sentence structure, such as the statement Jesus makes in verse 6 "That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of spirit is spirit."
Of course, I am not a Greek scholar, I do not pretend to be one, and I doubt that even with seminary training, I will ever be one. Theologians will undoubtedly continue to vigorously debate the meaning of this passage. However, it appears to be simple enough to me. Jesus is talking about baptism. Period.
Also, suggesting that Jesus might be referring to natural childbirth poses an additional problem:
If God's Word is 100% true... 100% accurate, then this passage would be suggesting that "being born [through waters of childbirth]" was a requirement for entering the kingdom of heaven. That, in turn, would suggest that all children who die from abortion, stillbirth, or miscarriage are eternally doomed. God's Word is silent on the eternal destiny of such souls, and as a Bible believing Lutheran, I believe that we too must be very careful about any attempt to speak truth where the Bible is silent. It's okay to form opinions about such things as long as we aren't being presumptious to know the mind of God or speak where the Word is silent.
On the other hand, if being born naturally is not a requirement for salvation, why would our Lord even mention it? "Well... first of all you need to be born..." That would be the classic "DUHHHH!" statement of all eternity. Nicodemus understands natural childbirth... the question seems to be rhetorical in nature; Jesus is essentially saying, "no, I'm talking about things of the Spirit... you've been formally trained in the teachings of God, and you don't seem to understand the things of the Spirit."
As a Lutheran, it's quite tempting to launch into a discussion about the question of baptismal regeneration, but I'll skip least for now. :-)


  1. This is actually Mark writing.

    ...but you did pass Greek, so you are a Greek scholar! I think you may be taking the Baptist position a little bit too literally. I don't think a Baptist would argue that unborn aborted children are going to hell because of John 3. We are talking about being born again here - our first birth involves water (the water of childbirth), our second birth involves the Spirit (baptism of the Holy Spirit).

    Jesus has not yet started a church so I don't see how Nicodemus could think that what Jesus is talking about is being baptized as an infant in a Christian church building.

    ...but I may be wrong! I am so jealous about you being in seminary. May God richly bless you!


  2. Mark, thanks for coming by, reading and posting!

    A couple of thoughts:
    By saying Jesus is referring to baptism, I'm not limiting that to infants, and certainly not to doing it in church buildings :-)
    We agree that baptism following conversion is appropriate. I even agree that Jesus *is* talking about the second birth. Where we differ is:
    - whether baptism is an act of man or a gift from God.
    - whether baptism an integral part of the second birth (gift of the holy spirit).

    Had Christ started his church yet? Perhaps not *officially* -- I guess that depends on how you look at it. Jesus was baptized and started his ministry approximately 3 or 4 days prior to the conversation with Nick. Later in verse 22 and in 4:1 we read that Jesus and his diciples were baptizing. Given that, I'm not sure as to whether the church had been "officially started" is important when discussing baptism.
    Agreed, I do not think a modern evangelical (Baptist or whatever) would suggest that babies that die would go to hell. Actually, they tend to favor a position that suggests babies are not accountable for their sin. That position is not supported by scripture, as I'm sure you already know.
    So is Jesus talking about the second birth or baptism?
    Yes! :)

    On a related note:
    What constitutes Christian baptism?
    For example, if a pastor performed the act by dipping someone in water while saying "Jesus loves you" or "I baptize you in the name of Jesus"... is that Christian baptism? I say no.
    Our Lord prescribed it in the Great Commission: "...baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
    Is it the water that makes it? No. Is it the hands of the pastor? No.
    It is the water with WITH the Word of God.

    Blessings to you, Mark, as you serve Him in your vocation as husband, father, computer programmer, and neighbor.