Born of Water

What did Jesus mean when he said to Nicodemus, ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water ’? (John 3:5). There is some debate over this but nearly everyone agrees that it has something to do with baptism. Some say he must have been speaking about John’s baptism of repentance because that is the baptism Nicodemus would have been familiar with. Others claim that Jesus was already introducing Nicodemus to the concept of full Christian baptism.
Perhaps the confusion over which baptism is in view comes from not seeing the big picture. Surely Jesus’ concept of being born of water would have included all of the Old Testament? Throughout the Old Testament God’s people were always being born of water. In the Hebrew Scripture water is often an agent of judgement that purifies the repentant and destroys the unrepentant. Let’s review some of the great water stories of the Old Testament.
In Noah’s time God judged the world with a flood. All the ungodly drowned but Noah’s family emerged from the flood unscathed and free of their evil generation. They were a people born of water.
In Moses’ time God judged the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Israel passed through the sea, but the sea drowned the Egyptian army that pursued. This event was decisive in the deliverance of Israel. They were set free from Egyptian slavery and emerged from the sea as a nation heading for a promised land. They were a people born of water.
Later God brought judgement on Jonah who was running from his calling to preach to the Ninevites. He caught a ship to escape God’s call, but the sea rose up and the ship was in danger of sinking. The sailors threw Jonah into the sea to save themselves from God’s anger. Jonah sank down in the waters of judgement, but a large fish swallowed him. Inside the fish he repented and the fish threw him up. God called Jonah again and he obeyed; he emerged from the water a new man. He was born of water.
In these accounts water judged the sin of both the repentant and the unrepentant. The unrepentant drowned and the repentant emerged cleansed and pruned. The repentant were born of water.
In Jesus’ day converts to Judaism were baptized, they had to repent of their belief in other religions and embrace a future in Judaism. John the Baptist took this a step further and baptized Jews who responded to his call to repent in preparation for the coming Messiah.
After Jesus was crucified and resurrected from the dead he told his disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). Here Jesus intended that all Jews and Gentiles embrace a new life in him. Paul called this baptism a ‘baptism into Christ’ (Galatians 3:27), and he said when we are baptized into Christ we are buried with him and then raised to a new life. Paul saw immersion into water as a burial, and rising out of the water as a resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). Because Christ died for our sins those who are ‘in Christ’ have already had their sins judged, and they can now get on with living the resurrected life free of condemnation.
Now I intentionally left out the end part of Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus above. Jesus actually said ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water AND THE SPIRIT.’ Water cannot cleanse a person spiritually, the Holy Spirit does that. Water is just a symbol of the Spirit. So those who are born of water are born of the Spirit and those who are born of the Spirit are born of water. The reason why Jesus said we must be ‘born of water and the Spirit’ is because baptism is an external testimony to the internal work of the Spirit. And if you want to receive the Spirit you must be prepared to make it known publically. In New Testament times people wanting to be born of the Spirit (born again) got baptized in water. In Evangelical circles now days, people wanting to be born of the Spirit pray a ‘sinners prayer’ and get baptized later. This means the experience of being born of the Spirit and being born of water has been separated. This is not a big problem because most churches still recognize the need for an internal miracle and an external testimony. But I think a return to using baptism as a sinner’s prayer would help us stick closer to the biblical model.
Let’s finish by returning to those great water stories of the Old Testament and ask, ‘Did Jesus ever connect his death and resurrection to those Old Testament accounts?’ Yes, he did. When the Pharisees asked him to prove his credentials by giving them a miraculous sign, he said ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’ (Matthew 12:39-40).
Peter, who sat and listened to the teachings of Jesus, linked Noah’s flood to baptism. Concerning Noah’s Ark he said, ‘In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also’ (1 Peter 3:20-21).
Paul, who knew the teachings that the twelve apostles got from Jesus, linked the Red Sea crossing first to baptism and then to Christ when he said, ‘For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).
Clearly Jesus saw all these Old Testament accounts as pointing to him and taught his followers the same thing. He said Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44).
I think Jesus’ concept of what it means to be born of water took in the entire Old Testament and all these great water stories. Thus for him baptism would have included repentance as preached by John, but it would also include a kind of death as people passed through judgement, and a kind of resurrection as they emerged a new people on the other side of that judgement.
Are you born of water and the Spirit? If you have not obeyed Christ in both I encourage you to take the necessary steps to do so.

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