Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
– John 3:1-5
John records the well-known dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. Though a Pharisee steeped in Judaism, Nicodemus was perceptive enough to acknowledge God’s work through Jesus (Jn. 3:1-2). Despite the cordial titles attributed to Jesus (“Rabbi,” “teacher”), it seems that Nicodemus did not go far enough in his conclusions about who Jesus really was. Jesus’ initial response was abrupt and, no doubt, took Nicodemus by surprise (Jn. 3:3).
Apparently Nicodemus believed that by virtue of his birthright as an Israelite and his special status as a Pharisee, he had already secured a position in the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus knew otherwise (cf., Jn. 2:23-25). In fact, Paul states that “a person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Rom. 2:28-29). Jesus insists that without this new birth, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, no matter the credentialing otherwise. Nicodemus knew absolutely nothing of this new birth as it related to his Jewish heritage, which explains his perplexed and bewildered reply (Jn. 3:4). Had Jesus been talking of a pagan Gentile being reborn into Judaism, Nicodemus would have understood well enough. But the idea of a Jew being reborn to enter God’s kingdom was inconceivable as Nicodemus was certain that his bloodline alone was sufficient.
Jesus’s admonition to be “born again” means simply to be reborn from above or to be birthed a second time. It is a conversion or transformation of one’s very nature; an act accomplished solely by God (Jn. 1:12-13). Nicodemus knew that repetition of a natural birth was preposterous, yet he could not think of this born-again idea any other way. Historical heritage and personal piety blinded Nicodemus to spiritual truths. This fundamental misunderstanding shows he knew nothing of this new or second birth as it related to him. More than likely, it never occurred to him that this second birth happens in a spiritual dimension rather than a physical one. Consequently, Jesus repeats his statement in similar terms to help clarify (Jn. 3:5).
It is important to show that being “born again” and being “born of water and the Spirit” are one and the same ideas. The essential difference is simply that the latter expression “echoes OT phraseology and might have been calculated to ring a bell in Nicodemus’ mind” (F.F.Bruce, The Gospel of John, p 84). So, whatever Jesus meant by the expression “born of water and the Spirit” must also be true of the expression “born again.”
The question to ask is: What is meant by the phrase γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ (lit., “born [out] of water and”)?
One possibility is that Jesus had John’s baptism in mind. Assuming that water is a symbol of a changed disposition of the heart, the meaning would be something like, “Nicodemus should enter into all that ‘water’ symbolizes, namely repentance and the like” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p 216. On this view cf., B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, p 50). Of course, the Pharisees consistently opposed Jesus and John’s baptism (Lk. 7:30), and it is highly unlikely that Jesus would simply be reiterating what Nicodemus already may have known, especially in light of the intimate and progressive nature of the dialogue.
If baptism, John’s or otherwise, were in view, then the formula is something like Spirit + H2O = salvation. However, Carson levels some serious objections to the position that John’s baptism is what Jesus intended.
The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9-10), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of this rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite the requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? [emphasis his] (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, p 24)
Another interpretation would be to take the expressions γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος (lit., “born [out] of water and spirit”) as two separate activities – the former being physical birth, while the latter being spiritual birth. The sense here would be that natural procreation is not enough; one must become a spiritual recreation. But, as Carson points out, there is “no ancient text that [speaks] of birth as ‘out of water’ – just as we do not speak that way today” (p 25).
Moreover, the construction ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος (lit., “[out] of water and spirit”), which indicates both nouns are governed by one preposition, favors the idea of only one concept. Quite possibly it is one birth of “water and Spirit.” Harris’ comments are exegetically and theologically significant.
“ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος” (Jn. 3:5) shows that for the writer (or speaker) “water” and “Spirit” together form a single means of that regeneration which is a prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom of God (ἄνωθεν = birth, Jn. 3:3, 7). No contrast is intended between an external element of “water” and an inward renewal achieved by the Spirit. Conceptually the two are one. (M. J. Harris, “Appendix: Prepositions and Theology in the Greek NT,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3, p 1178.)
Since neither physical birth nor John’s baptism are in view here, coupled with the idea that the expression in Jn. 3:5 is one concept, then another interpretation is more likely. Given the fact that Jesus was talking with a Pharisee, chances are Old Testament references having to do with the Spirit’s activity in cleansing and renewal would have been, and indeed should have been, recalled to mind by Nicodemus.
Ezekiel 36:25 is just such a reference (also, Is. 44:3-4; Joel 2:28). Ezekiel speaks of an eschatological cleansing and renewal by God’s Spirit that refers to the Jewish people. Though it was invoked as biblical authority for baptism of proselytes (Bruce, p 84), the context suggests a national revival of Israel. And, whatever applied to the nation of Israel necessarily applies to individuals of that nation. Therefore, it is quite possible that “born of water and Spirit” is signaling a new begetting or birth that cleanses and purifies Jewish nationals. The religious leader should have anticipated a spiritual cleansing for his nation, but, sadly he did not (compare, Jn. 3:10; Jer. 31:29ff).
More importantly, if John’s readers were primarily, though not exclusively, Jews (cf., Jn. 20:30-31 where his overarching purpose may very well be to identify Jesus as the Messiah), then this reading of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus would not only have been an effective evangelistic maneuver to the Jews, but also the communication of a hope realized, namely the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises anticipated in the spiritual renewal of his chosen people! This hope had never been fully understood nor realized before in Jewish history. But now, through faith in Jesus the Messiah, hope becomes reality. On the one hand, John is saying an individual’s Jewish credentials were unimportant to this spiritual renewal. Yet, on the other hand, John intimates one’s Jewish credentials significantly enhance this spiritual renewal, in that God faithfully and fully completes the promises he makes to his specially chosen people. Jesus the Messiah is both the Promise and the Promise Keeper!
While it is true that God’s kingdom is of a spiritual nature and entrance into it can only be by spiritual rebirth, water baptism is not completely removed from the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. In other words, it is not entirely wrong to read this text in light of Christian baptism. In fact, it’s not impossible to see John employing some type of anachronism in projecting Christian baptism upon his readers. Regardless, “if baptism is associated in the readers’ minds with entrance into the Christian faith, and therefore with new birth, then they are being told in the strongest terms that it is the new birth itself that is essential, not the rite” (Carson, p 196). Or as F. F. Bruce states, “it is a pity when reaction against the notion of baptismal regeneration by an opus operatum leads to the complete overlooking of the baptismal allusion in these words of Jesus” (Bruce, p 85). Therefore, water baptism may be the objective signification of that subjective response of faith in Jesus. While water may not be a means of salvation, it is that sacramental instrument pointing to the reality of it.