The Bible talks about being born again. What does that look like, and how does water come into the picture? Was Jesus talking about baptism, or something else?
In John 3, Jesus has a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus out of a sincere desire to learn more from Him. Unlike many of the Pharisees during Jesus’ time, Nicodemus believed Jesus was the real deal.
this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”John 3:2
In verse 3, Jesus tells him, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”Nicodemus tries to understand this literally. He asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4). But that’s when Jesus elaborates: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). This is a beautiful explanation of how the kingdom of God involves the hearts of its citizens. The kingdom Jesus came to establish would not depend on physical birth. You can’t just be born into a popular, political, rich, or religious family and then be declared part of the kingdom. This was especially important for a Jew to hear, since the old covenant did require physical birth, as well as circumcision for the males. However, regardless of the place or circumstance of your first birth, you must be born a second time to enter Jesus’ kingdom. Peter describes it this way:
Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the LORD endures forever.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.1 Peter 1:22–25
Live long enough, and you’ll realize your current body is not going to last forever. It breaks down, and once it’s put into the ground, it will rapidly decay. That’s because your body is made of flesh. But if your inner person—your spirit—is born again through God’s word and glory, despite your physical body dying and decaying, you can live forever, because the seed of the new birth—the word of God—endures forever.
According to Jesus, this new birth requires water and Spirit, right? It seems like it. He said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Yet, many people disagree with each other as to what Jesus meant here. Even Nicodemus had trouble understanding it. So, let’s unpack it.
First, let’s discuss the Spirit part. Although almost every English translation of the Bible says the Spirit in this verse, the definite article is not in the Greek in verse 5. However, it is present in verse 6.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.John 3:6
Certainly the Holy Spirit is involved in someone’s conversion to Christ. The apostle Paul said to the Christians in Corinth:
And such were some of you [thieves, adulterers, drunkards, and so on]. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:11
In 1 Peter 1:2, the apostle says that Christians are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” So the Holy Spirit is deeply involved in every new birth.
Also, we must understand Jesus teaches that the kingdom is populated by those who have been given new life—those whose personal spirits have been renewed. This is a blessing each disciple of Jesus receives every day.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.2 Corinthians 4:16
So to be born of spirit is a beautiful combination of God working in our lives to transform our inner person while we, as Peter put it, “purified [our] souls in obeying the truth [the word of God] through the Spirit.”
But Jesus said we also have to be born of water. What does that mean? In the beginning of the gospel accounts, we see a man named John baptizing people at the Jordan River. Even Jesus Himself “came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him” (Matthew 3:13). John is featured in all four gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—as a baptizer. And since Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is toward the beginning of the apostle John’s account, the most natural understanding of what Jesus means by being born of water is baptism. Is Jesus saying we need to be baptized to enter His kingdom?
First, let’s recognize a popular—but not so good—explanation as to what Jesus is saying here. Many people have approached this passage already convinced in their mind that there’s no way Jesus could be teaching Nicodemus or us that you have to be baptized in order to enter His kingdom. They therefore reason that since Jesus cannot mean literal water baptism here, He must mean something else. What else might Jesus mean when He says you must be born of water? Here’s the most widely-accepted alternative explanation I have come across. I’ve heard it from popular preachers and read it in commentaries and study Bibles: Since Jesus is talking about two births, water must be connected to the first birth (the flesh), and Spirit must be connected to the second birth. So far, I can follow. Here’s the conclusion, however: Therefore, when Jesus says water, He must mean semen during conception or the amniotic fluid inside the mother’s womb.1 And if these alternative fluids are not mentioned, then some metaphorical sense or other fluid is submitted. Is this a viable explanation of what Jesus means?
No, for a couple of good reasons:
- Water and Spirit are required for the new birth and for entering into the kingdom of God. That conjunction “and” makes it clear. It would not make sense for Jesus to say, “For you to follow me into the kingdom, well, you have to first be conceived through a reproductive act between two fertile humans of the opposite gender, and then go through the gestation period in your mother’s womb long enough to be viable at birth. You’ve done that? Okay, good. You’ve accomplished the first task. And then grow old enough to desire a second birth through the Spirit only. No one chooses to be born physically. But Jesus presents being born of water as not just a choice, but an imperative, at least for those who want a kingdom life—you must be born again of water and spirit.
- The other big problem with viewing water in verse 5 as anything but water is it doesn’t work with the context. You might have heard Bible students say, “Context is key,” or even, “Context is king.” This is true of any form of communication. Many sentences would not make sense or communicate fully if not heard in context. “So I chose strawberries instead of pistachios.” “The bucket was empty, and as you have probably guessed, that saved our lives.” “She couldn’t believe she found it for only $349.” You cannot know for sure what the speaker is saying in any of these cases, unless you know what was said before, and in some cases, afterward as well. To best understand what Jesus means by being born again of water in this passage, let’s see what the context of the book of John tells us.
Real quick: The author John in the Bible is John the apostle. He wrote the gospel of John; First, Second, and Third John; and the Book of Revelation. John the baptizer, who was Jesus’ relative, is a different person. I know; it can be confusing. Just wait until you try to keep up with all the Marys and Simons in the New Testament.
Alright, let’s go through the context of John 3, where Jesus says we must be born of water.
The first chapter of the Gospel of John tells us of how John the baptizer is sent by God to bear witness of the Light. While fulfilling this, John baptizes people in the Jordan River using water. In John 1:26, John himself says, “I baptize with water.”
In this passage, what does John mean by water? No honest Bible student would teach John was baptizing in reproductive or amniotic fluid. Of course, when John says water, he means water. See also verses 31 and 33.
In the next chapter, Jesus and His disciples are at a wedding. The wedding runs out of wine, and Jesus famously performs His first sign in John’s gospel by turning water into wine. In verses 6–9, waterpots are filled with water, Jesus then instructs the servants to draw some out, and the water has miraculously been turned into wine. Again, in this passage, water means water. The next time water is mentioned in scripture is our passage at hand:
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.John 3:5
Immediately after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, we read:
After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized.John 3:22–23
Again, what was John baptizing in? In this passage, water means water.
Then, after His time in Judea, Jesus begins traveling back to Galilee. He and His disciples pass through Samaria, and Jesus rests at Jacob’s well.
A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.John 4:7–9
This woman came to a well to draw water. Jesus asked for a drink. In this passage, water means water. But then, notice how the conversation transpires.
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”John 4:10–14
Here, Jesus mentions living water. Yes, there are living bacteria in most sources of water, but H2O itself is not living. In this case, does water mean water? No. How do we know? Jesus qualifies it and plainly applies it spiritually. He calls it living water which springs up to eternal life. Now this is studying the Bible in context! We aren’t asking the questions, “What does this mean to you?” Or “What does your preacher say?” We’re asking, “What did Jesus mean when He said this?”
Out of all writers in the New Testament, John uses the word water the most, and every time, John assumes his audience understands what water means. The word ὕδωρ is always translated as water in the New Testament. Out of the nearly 80-or-so times it is used, the only times the language insists on picturing something other than actual water are when Jesus refers to living water in John 4 and John 7, and even then, Jesus uses the word water as an illustration to help us understand eternal life and the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, what’s my point?
In John 1:33, water means water, as well as John 2:9; John 3:23; and John 4:7. In the middle of these passages that talk about actual water, Jesus says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And the very next thing Jesus does is participate in people’s baptisms in water.
This passage is easy to understand, and you need help to misunderstand it. Seriously, if you had never heard someone’s explanation of this passage or someone automatically excluding baptism in the salvation process, what conclusion would you come to while reading the gospel of John? Would you wrestle with this passage and force Jesus to be metaphorical here? Would you think he is talking about gestation fluid? Or would you understand that so far water means water, John and Jesus’ disciples have been dunking people in water to prepare them for the kingdom, and then Jesus says you must be born again of water? Then he goes back to the water where people are being baptized. Therefore; Jesus must be talking about baptism here. To come to any other conclusion divorces this passage from context and rejects the work of the Holy Spirit.
When someone approaches the Bible with their mind already made up, that’s called eisegesis, that is reading into scripture what you already believe. Be careful if your Bible teacher ever says something like, “Yes, Jesus says water, but He doesn’t really mean water.” There are times scripture uses symbols and metaphors, but in those cases, the author is clear with what he is doing, just like when Jesus talked about living water. When talking about being born again, if Jesus meant anything other than real water, why hide it from Nicodemus with word games—Nicodemus—who had come to Him for the answers to life’s big questions?
The conclusion that Jesus says baptism is part of being born again is congruent with the rest of the New Testament.
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.Acts 2:38
In this verse, just like Jesus did, the apostle Peter teaches the penitent Jews to be born of both water and spirit.
In Acts 8, after the Ethiopian was baptized in water, he rejoiced with a new spirit.
In a context where Peter is talking about being saved by water, and how God saves us at the point of baptism, Peter explains that baptism doesn’t cleanse the body, but it is “an appeal to God for a good conscience” through the resurrection of Jesus (1 Peter 3:21 NASB). How is it that someone can have a good conscience after baptism? Because God has caused the sinner to be born again. A new life. A clean slate. A fresh start. A cleared conscience before God. See how the apostle Paul explains it:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.Romans 6:1–4
Paul says there is a need to die to sin. That’s repentance. What do you do with a dead body? You bury, and in this case, the penitent sinner is buried in baptism. What did Jesus do after He was buried? He rose from the grave. When someone submits to Him in baptism, by the same glory God used to raise Jesus, He raises the person out of baptism to a brand new life. In other words, the person has been born again.
This, of course, is not to say the person is obeying themselves into the kingdom, earning their salvation, or putting God in their dept. Certainly not! This is a sinner who knows he cannot save himself, and he is coming to Jesus—the only one who can save—submitting to His death in obedience, pleading for a new life.
He who has My [Jesus’] commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.John 14:21
We obey Jesus because we love Him. And just as He taught with the parable in Luke 17, “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (v. 10).
Going back to Romans 6, Paul continues:
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin.Romans 6:5–7
At the point of baptism, Paul says the soul is no longer enslaved to sin. Why? Because that person has been crucified and buried. It was a new, free person who came out of the water. Isn’t that amazing? God loves us so much that He gave His Son to die for us, and He also grants us access to Jesus’ death by being baptized into His death. Don’t you want to be found covered by Jesus’ death on the great Day of the Lord? Here it is on offer—be baptized into His death.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.Galatians 3:26–27
And the person who responds by saying the baptism mentioned in these passages is not actual baptism is pulling the same stunt of the one who tries to say Jesus is not talking about actual water in John 3. Remember, context is key. Read the passages in your own Bible, including the verses before and after. You’ll see how beautiful and liberating it is to simply take Jesus at His word.
Think of what Jesus said to Nicodemus about being born again when reading what Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians about when they were born again.
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.Colossians 2:11–13
When they were dead in their sins, they put their faith in the working of God and were buried in baptism, which is where Jesus cut away their sins from their hearts, and when they were raised, they were made alive and forgiven. That is, they were born again.
You see, when you allow the Bible to explain itself, it makes good sense. But if you reject God’s use of baptism in the salvation story of a sinner, then you have to twist Scripture to fit your understanding, and you can’t take Jesus at His word.
So, your body is breaking down. It will eventually decay. What about your spirit? I urge you to put your faith in Him today, and be born again of water and spirit by the imperishable seed. Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of your sins.
- For an example of this conclusion, see Dr. Thomas L. Constable. Dr. Constable’s Notes on John. 2022 Edition p95. ↩︎