by Roel Velema
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of WATER AND SPIRIT and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
What is the meaning of “water” in this verse?
Commentaries provide different answers. Some say it’s literal water, like the water in the womb or water baptism. Others say the water is figurative and point to the Word of God.
In order to provide the correct answer a few things are important.
Firstly, there is a rule in Greek that when two nouns our connected with a conjunction, like in “water and Spirit”, both words have to be both literal or both figurative. In John 3:5, where “water and Spirit” is used, “Spirit” is literal. So “water” also has to be literal. Though our birth from above is connected with the Word of God (cp. 1 Peter 1:23), it is figurative, and doesn’t match our grammatical criterium.
The water of the womb is literally, but is not an option, because our Lord declined the natural line; it is not the issue in John 3:5. And it doesn’t add anything of value, because every child is born from water in the womb. It was the ignorance of Nicodemus do say that.
It can’t apply to water baptism either, because we are not eternally saved by water baptism. It is a testimony that we already ARE saved.
Secondly, the passage which Nicdemus had to think of was Ezekiel 36:25-27:
“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.”
The first part of Ezekiel 36 has to do with the spiritual renewing of Israel (cp. Isa. 66:8; Rom. 11:15; Ezek. 37:1-14). Note the similarity between John 3:8 and Ezekiel 37:9:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (Ezek. 36:9). To understand John 3:5 better, note that the word “water” only appears once in Ezekiel 36-37, where it has to do with CLEANSING.
“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” (Ezek. 36:25).
We receive even further light in Leviticus 14:5-7, where we also see the relationship between cleansing or sprinkling and the water:
“And the priest shall command them to KILL ONE of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water. He shall take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall PRONOUNCE HIM CLEAN and shall let the LIVING BIRD go into the open field.”
This all points to our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the killed bird in His death, and the living bird in His resurrection. In His death it was connected with His blood and in His resurrection connected with water:
“The Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:8).
John 3:5 doesn’t mention the blood perse, because Jesus is dealing in that verse with the life side of the cross. So John 3:5 points to the literal water in John 19:34:
“But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.”
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).
So the blood cleanses in an atoning sense and the water cleanses in washing sense. The birth from above is a bath of regeneration (cp. Titus 3:5). This washing is needed to make us pure temples of the Holy Spirit.