Born of Water and the Spirit
I will answer the following two related questions in this issue of the News:
- “What does Jesus mean by being ‘born of water and of the Spirit’ in John 3:5? Obviously, this isn’t referring to baptismal regeneration.”
- “What does John mean by ‘the spirit, and the water, and the blood’ in I John 5:8? If ‘the spirit’ is the Holy Spirit, what are ‘the water’ and ‘the blood’ referring to?”
1) In answering these questions, we will take John 3:5 first. Some interpret the passage to refer to physical birth and spiritual birth, physical birth being “of water” and spiritual birth “of the Spirit.” While it is certainly true that a person must ordinarily first be born physically before he can be born again, that is so obvious and so trite that it is difficult to see why Jesus would even mention it.
Others take the reference to being born of water as a proof of baptismal regeneration, i.e., that we are born again by water baptism. The questioner suggests that such an interpretation is impossible, as indeed it is, for water cannot and does not wash away sin and bring about spiritual rebirth, as so many water baptisms demonstrate. The Bible itself tells us so in I Corinthians 10:1-5, where the water baptism of Israel in the Red Sea did not regenerate many of them. They were “all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea ... But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (2, 5).
Nevertheless, the water in John 3:5 must refer to the water baptism. It cannot refer to anything else. It refers to that water, however, as a sign of the blood of Christ. One must be born of Christ’s blood and Spirit, that is the idea of the passage, but the sign, water, is mentioned instead of that which it represents, the shed blood of Christ.
That the blood of Christ is not named and the sign is named should not seem strange. In both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the names of the sign and the spiritual realities they signify are often interchanged. Jesus calls the bread of the Lord’s Supper His body, even though it is only the sign, and the water of baptism, though it is not the reality, is commonly called by the name of the reality. We mean that sprinkling or pouring water on someone is not really “baptism” but, because it is so closely associated with real, spiritual baptism by the blood and Spirit of Christ, it has the same name.
Ezekiel says something very similar to John 3:5 in 36:25-27, mixing symbols, pictures and realities: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”
The key to the interpretation of John 3:5 is in the passage, in verse 3. Comparing verses 3 and 5, it is evident that being “born of water and of the Spirit” (5) is the same as being “born again” (3). There is only one birth in the passage, though both the blood of Christ (symbolized by, and called by, the name of its sign) and the Spirit of Christ are involved. There is no other birth and there is no other baptism, but that.
Note that the water of baptism symbolizes both the blood and Spirit of Christ, not just the blood. While the word “water” is used in place of the word “blood,” that is the point Jesus is making. It is the Spirit who applies the blood of Christ to us for our cleansing, both the initial washing away of our sins in regeneration and the subsequent washing away of sin in the Spirit’s work of sanctification. But it is the shed blood of Christ which the Spirit applies and which alone avails for my cleansing.
Another important point is that, without this cleansing by the blood and Spirit of Christ, no one will even “see” the kingdom of God (3). We may not trust in anything but the blood and Spirit of Christ. That I was baptized with water does not guarantee my entrance into heaven. That I made a profession of faith does not mean I will see the heavenly kingdom of which Christ speaks in John 3. I must be cleansed of sin and guilt before I can stand in the presence of the God who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab. 1:13) and of whom Psalm 5:4 says, “neither shall evil dwell with thee.”
It is regarding these truths that Jesus chides Nicodemus, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”(John 3:10). What Jesus had said was nothing new but had been spoken long before by the prophet Ezekiel. Not only should Nicodemus have known what Jesus meant by being “born of water and of the Spirit,” but he should have known, too, that works of righteousness, keeping the law and the rites prescribed by the law, do not gain entrance to the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, we should not be too hard on Nicodemus, for even today there are many who do not know these things, though they sit in a church every Lord’s day.
2) That leaves I John 5:8 and the answer is really the same. John mentions water and blood not because they are different things—the blood is symbolized by the water—but because the water is such a beautiful and important picture of the blood as well as of the Spirit. The water, therefore, should never be neglected, though it must always be understood that the water is only a picture and symbol, and that only the blood and Spirit of Christ can open the kingdom to those who were unwashed and unclean, and who needed the spiritual heart transplant that Ezekiel 36:26 describes: a second miraculous birth.
The Spirit, the water and the blood, John says in I John 5:8, “agree in one.” There is but one Lord, one faith and one baptism, the washing away of sin by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ, symbolized by the water of baptism.
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:7-10). Rev. Ron Hanko