Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


exchanges
Water and spirit

An exchange demonstrating that it does not, and cannot, refer to baptism.

I am going to repost a fairly lengthy Facebook discussion here, since others have found it helpful. It revolves around John 2:23-3:13, and particularly 3:5 and 3:10. The comments I quote and respond to are not all from one person, but I haven’t tried to distinguish between them since they are simply acting as foils.

First, the passage for context

2:23 Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many trusted in his name because they saw the signs he was doing. 24 But Jesus himself did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people, 25 and because he did not need anyone to testify about man, for he himself knew what was in man. 3:1 And there was a man of the Pharisees whose name was Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to him at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one is able to perform these signs that you are performing unless God were with him.”

3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless someone is born from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter into his mother’s womb for the second time and be born‽”

5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless someone is born of water and spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘It is necessary for you to be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can these things be?”

10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things? 11 Amen, amen I say to you, we speak what we know, and we testify about what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony! 12 If I tell you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. John 2:23-3:13

Now, the exchange

Let’s start at the point where I asked a Catholic disputant why he thinks John 3:5 is referring to baptism:

For the same reason that I think people are talking about food when they mention “that which is consumed for nutrition”: His words are the very definition of Baptism.

So in your view, “born of water” is synonymous with baptism, and Jesus held Nicodemus culpable for not knowing that baptism was a requirement of salvation under the Old Covenant (v 9-10)?

“Born of water and the Spirit” is synonymous with “Baptised”, yes Bnonn. Baptism was not a requirement of salvation under the Old Law.

But in verse 10 Jesus clearly indicates that a teacher of Israel should know that unless one is born of water and spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God. So either baptism was a requirement of salvation under the Old Covenant, or water and spirit can’t mean baptism.

Christ asks people rhetorically throughout the Gospels questions of similar effect. By them, He means to emphasize the supernatural origin of His doctrine and how ignorant the teachers of Israel are of truly Heavenly things. He had no real expectation that Nicodemus should know about Baptism because he knew the Old Law. He does the same thing in John vi:62 (“Doth this scandalise you?”) concerning the doctrine of the Real Presence.

No offense but that’s absurd; it mangles the text to be meaningless and makes Jesus into a git. It is hardly an indictment on Nicodemus if he doesn’t know about sacraments which have yet to exist. His ignorance is only noteworthy and scandalous if, in fact, Jesus is referring to something he should have known. If, for example, “water and spirit” is meant to be a reference back to Ezekiel 36:25-27—where water and spirit are presented together in a way that seems closely similar; water representing justification (v 25), and spirit representing the transformation that goes with becoming a new creation (vv 26-27).

So Jesus is saying, “unless you are justified and regenerated, you cannot see the kingdom of heaven”.

The most serious problem with your understanding of the passage is that it is flagrantly eisegetical. It essentially takes our automatic reaction to the text, as Christians who link water closely to baptism, and makes that the interpretive grid.

But that’s not how exegesis is done. When we want to know what the Bible is saying, we ask questions like, “What would these words and phrases have meant to the original speaker?” “What would they have meant to the original reader?” “What is the author’s aim in recording them?” “How has he used similar words or phrases, or similar ideas, in the rest of his writing?” And so on. And as I’ve shown, those questions come out with nonsense answers if we run with your interpretation.

What reasons do we have to accept your grossly eisegetical interpretation of the passage, which turns Jesus’ words into nonsense, over an interpretation which parallels Jesus’ words with a part of Scripture that Nicodemus would have known well, and which makes clear sense of what he is saying?

(Btw, although you cite John 6 to support your view of John 3, what I’ve said actually seems to furnish us with much better evidence that in neither place is John referring to NT sacraments!)

Yeah, Bnonn, that’s my point: it’s not meant to be an indictment of Nicodemus. You just typed all that for no reason. Haha.

So you’re denying that Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” Or are you denying that he said it to Nicodemus? Or are you denying that he meant that teachers of Israel should understand these things? Or…?

I’m confused.

We are at an impasse, Bnonn: you are obviously warping Christ’s words beyond all recognition in John iii:5, and you claim that I am doing the same with His words in John iii:9. But here’s the difference: I’ve shown that my interpretation fits with a rhetorical habit Christ employed throughout the Gospels. How does your interpretation fit within a broader interpretation of Christ’s discourses throughout the Gospels?

As to your interpretation of John vi not being about the Eucharist, it’s crazy. Disciples don’t walk away over metaphors.

At this point, others also joined the discussion in a noteworthy way. I trust you’ll be able to figure it out.

Bnonn said that it’s hardly an indictment of Nicodemus *IF* he doesn’t know what the sacraments are. But Bnonn thinks Nicodemus *is* being indicted. On your view, I think Bnonn said it makes Jesus into a git. Y u make Jesus into a git?

I’m denying that he seriously expected Nicodemus to know that Baptism would be necessary in the New Law. In other words, what’s He’s basically saying is: “Oh, you didn’t know that? I thought you masters of Israel knew everything?”

Our Lord was being sarcastic. :)

The most natural interpretation of that question is that they are *expected* to know ‘these things’ given that they are teachers of Israel.

Yeah, the problem with that “most natural” interpretation is that it would lead us also to believe that Christ seriously expected them to know that they must be born again as well, and Nicodemus was clearly just as puzzled by that.

But of course Nicodemus should have known about being born again—it’s taught in the OT, and he was a teacher of the OT!

As we’ve already pointed out, trying to emphasize someone’s ignorance by sarcastically showing their ignorance of the future would only be plausible if you were already dogmatically committed to interpreting them that way for other reasons.

I’d ask you to explain in what sense am I “warping” Christ’s words “beyond all recognition” in 3:5. That strikes me as not only uncharitable, but simply absurd, since if it is “warping” to think that “water and spirit” might mean something other than literal water, then by that logic interpreting Ezekiel to be about justification rather than baptism is warping his words beyond recognition. Or indeed, Jesus, when he spoke to the woman at the well, must have been talking about baptism, or at least literal water that gives eternal life—and to say otherwise is warping his words beyond recognition. Do you think that Jesus was talking about literal water to the woman at the well? If not, why must he have been talking about literal water in chapter 3? Indeed, given how often Jesus uses physical elements (water repeatedly, the temple in chapter 2, etc) to refer to non-physical things (that rhetorical strategy your view supposedly fits so neatly with), why should we even expect, let alone demand that physical water is in view here?

I do claim that all those other references to water are literal as well. That’s not to say that they don’t have allegorical meaning as well, but as the Fathers teach us, Scripture has 4 senses. One of them is literal.

So yes, Christ was speaking of literal water to the woman at the well. He was *also* speaking metaphorically of His own grace.

But in John iii:5, He refers literally to His Spirit, so “water” must have at least some literal meaning there, or else it is superfluous.

So Ezekiel 36:25-27 is also referring to literal water? And when the Bible repeatedly speaks of the work of the Spirit in justification with terms like “washing” and “water” and “cleansing”, that is all referring to literal water too?

But in John iii:5, He refers literally to His Spirit, so “water” must have at least some literal meaning there, or else it is superfluous.

That’s just obviously question-begging against the very plausible interpretation I gave that parallels John 3:5 with Ezekiel 36:25-27.

Yes, I believe those are references to literal water as well, not per se, but insofar as they prefigure Christ’s own doctrine. Your interpretation, rather than having Christ fulfill the Prophets, has Him merely repeating them. Boring…

I want to reiterate how bizarre this claim is, if I’m understanding it correctly. You are saying that unless a metaphor in Scripture has a referent which can fulfill the physical component—ie, unless a metaphor is not merely a metaphor, not merely figurative, but is literal also—then to treat it as a metaphor at all is “warping” the text “beyond recognition”.

I think Bnonn’s point about Ezekiel 36 is a very good one. If we take Christ to be referring to Ezekiel 36, then His reaction to Nicodemus in v. 9 makes a lot of sense since Nicodemus would be expected to know the teaching of that chapter.

To be clear, I too take Christ to be referring back to Ezekial 36. That;s not Bnonn’s point, though. That’s all over the Fathers, too. Bnonn gets no credit.

The difference, though, is that Christ is not so much referring back to Ezekial 36 as Ezekial is referring to John iii:5. Christ refers to nobody, strictly speaking. All refer to Him. Scriptural Theology 101.

Bnonn, I think your discussion of v10 was extremely helpful. I’m curious what you think of v12, since it has always puzzled me: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

What exactly are the ‘earthly things’ about which Jesus’ has been speaking? Also, the future tense in Jesus’ statement “how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things” seems unusual, on any interpretation, since he does seem to have been speaking of heavenly thing already.

I am very glad to have been helpful. To answer your question, I hope you don’t mind me pasting from my recent sermon on John 3:9-15:

Now, by earthly things he doesn’t mean “unspiritual” things. John often requires careful reading because he deliberately phrases things in ways that challenge how we like to think. We’ve seen that repeatedly with his favorite technique—recording Jesus’ statement of spiritual truths in physical terms, and the subsequent ironic misunderstanding [of which, I’d add, Christopher’s is one kind—the poor Catholics are doing exactly what Jesus’ dimwitted foils did].

But he also does this in other ways, so we have to think through what he is saying; and again, I think this is carefully calculated as what marketers call a “pattern interrupt”, to force us to stop skimming and start engaging with the text.

So when he says “earthly things” here, he doesn’t mean unspiritual or carnal things or merely physical things. Obviously Nicodemus believes in the sorts of physical things that they’ve been discussing: birth and the movement of the wind. Rather, he means, “things that happen on earth”—as opposed to things that happen in heaven, or will happen when heaven comes to earth in the consummated kingdom of God. Since human beings live on earth, spiritual rebirth is an earthly thing; it is not heavenly, because it doesn’t happen in heaven.

Be that as it may, you see Nicodemus once again is put firmly in his place. He came seeking uncommon knowledge from Jesus—knowledge of heaven—but Jesus consistently and repeatedly illustrates and emphasizes that Nicodemus is not ready. Indeed, he doesn’t even understand or believe the common things that are going on right in front of his face here on earth. The spiritual milk. How can he expect to graduate to solid food when he hasn’t started drinking milk yet? His presumption is exceeded only by his obliviousness.

Bnonn, that’s very helpful. That does make sense of the truly puzzling part – what ‘earthly things’ did Nicodemus not believe? I definitely was assuming that this meant ‘physical things.’

Can you think of some ‘heavenly truths’ which Jesus speaks about and are rejected? The only place that comes to mind is in John 6 in which Jesus talks about ascending to the right hand of God as something which people would not accept.

Well in my defense this is as far as I’ve preached through John so far, so my intimacy with 3:16 onward is not as good as with 1-3:15 But I would say, off the top of my head, that actually the major heavenly thing people rejected was that Jesus and the Father were one. That he was in the Father and the Father was in him.

Other heavenly things aren’t really for us. Jesus didn’t come to reveal heaven, but rather to reveal the Father. My sense about Nicodemus is that he came to Jesus looking for knowledge about the kingdom of God that wasn’t in Scripture. He probably had apocalyptic leanings; that was common then, as it is now. I think the text hints at that, the way John frames it by remarking how Jesus knows what is in man, and then when Nicodemus comes to him, Jesus starts talking about the kingdom specifically. That suggests Jesus knew of an interest of Nicodemus.

But yeah, I’d tend to say the point Jesus is making, similar to the point Paul makes in 2 Cor 12:4, is that Nicodemus shouldn’t be looking to another man to learn about heaven, because those are things “no man may utter”—and he uses that fact as a platform to emphasize not only that no man may utter them, but that no man has actually seen them in the way many Jewish myths of the time purported, and this in turn is a lead-in to his own claim of divinity.

Interesting. I did a word search on ‘heaven’ in the GoJ and it does seem like John emphasizes the distinction between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’, with Jesus being the only one who mediates between the two and brings heaven to earth. A particularly relevant passage follows immediately: John 3:27-36. Here, it is very clear that ‘earth’ doesn’t mean ‘physical’ or even ‘carnal’ since John (the man ‘sent from God’, 1:6!) is describing his own ministry! That seems to clearly support your point.

Bnonn, Christopher objected that one shouldn’t appeal to what is the most natural interpretation of v. 10 (that Christ expected Nicodemus to know “these things”) because elsewhere in the passage (namely v. 3), the most natural interpretation was confusing to Nicodemus. How would you respond to this objection?

Well I’d say that Christopher’s objection is obviously question-begging. The most natural interpretation to whom?

As I pointed out, exegesis is done by assuming that the “whom” is the original speaker and hearer—not a reader centuries or even millennia later. Btw, this is standard for Catholic scholars as well as Protestant ones; I get the impression Christopher simply hasn’t read any modern Catholic exegetes and is instead parroting the early fathers. But the early fathers aren’t an authority unto themselves. We need to assess who has the better argument.

We need to interpret v 3 in light of v 5. It doesn’t do any good to say, “What is the natural interpretation of ‘born again’ to Nicodemus?” because Nicodemus doesn’t have the right natural interpretation here. Jesus is deliberately using language that will trip him up. So we need to look to how Jesus explains being born again in v 5: “born of water and spirit”.

Now, would a second temple Jew, an Old Testament teacher, prior to the inauguration of the new covenant or the writing of the New Testament, have taken “water and spirit” to most naturally refer to baptism? Very plainly not. Tbh, anyone thinking otherwise is just mad. Of course he wouldn’t see baptism here, because baptism was not an old covenant ordinance. It beggars belief to think that a Jew would see something he had no knowledge of, as the natural interpretation of a text, especially when there is another interpretation that would have seemed natural to him.

To illustrate, let’s imagine you had come to Nicodemus in another context and asked him, as a teacher of Israel, “What does water and spirit mean?” He would automatically have assumed you were asking about Old Testament usage, and he would have taken a passage like Ezekiel 36 and tried to explain it to you.

Now, we see from John 3 that he would have explained it wrong. He didn’t understand that water and spirit in the Old Testament is referring to something akin to a spiritual birth. He should have understood it, being a high-up rabbi, and that is exactly why Jesus is scandalized (though of course not surprised) by his response.

So the “natural interpretation” of verse 5 (and by extension verse 3) is referring holistically to the action of the Spirit. And Jesus confirms this by giving a second explanation in terms of wind, which seems to be alluding to the next chapter of Ezekiel (37). If he intended to refer to baptism, you would have expected him to refer to it again when explaining himself to Nicodemus, but instead he talks only about the Spirit. So “water and spirit”, as I’ve already said, can only plausibly refer to washing and transformation, cleansing and becoming a new creation, remission of sin and being made new—or in Protestant parlance, justification and regeneration.

Thanks for the thorough explanation, Bnonn. Out of curiosity, do you think that Christ must be interpreted as trying to trip up Nicodemus? I always understood this encounter as Christ speaking in a vague way at first (but with no intention to confuse), His listeners not understanding Him, and His subsequent clarification.

Glad to help. I think it’s difficult to attribute “vagueness” to Jesus, especially in John’s gospel Jesus is always so purposeful and careful in the words he chooses. And John even frames the encounter by saying that Jesus knew what was in man. So I think Jesus’ intention here must be taken as a calculated effort to expose Nicodemus’ ignorance. Remember, the Pharisees thought they knew about salvation—how do you save someone who already thinks he knows all about that? As they say, the first step is admitting you’ve got a problem.

Plus, John makes a repeated point of recording the various ways in which Jesus deliberately uses metaphor, and the subsequent misunderstanding of his audience. It strikes me as straining credulity to think Jesus just kept accidentally confusing people. It seems to me that the whole purpose of his doing this is, as John says in 12:40, is that those who are condemned may not see or hear and turn that he would heal them. This is certainly congruent with Matthew 13:13.

1 comment

  1. Anna

    “But in verse 10 Jesus clearly indicates that a teacher of Israel should know that unless one is born of water and spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God. So either baptism was a requirement of salvation under the Old Covenant, or water and spirit can’t mean baptism.”

    The Kingdom of God wasn’t salvation under the Old Covenant. Jesus preached that the Kingdom was coming, that it was at hand. It hadn’t happened yet. It was, however, something that was hinted at, prophesied about, and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and therefore Jesus was frustrated when a teacher didn’t recognize certain things about the kingdom.

    Jesus isn’t frustrated when he explains that water and the spirit are necessary to enter the kingdom of God. He doesn’t express frustration when he makes clear that the kingdom of God isn’t like the concrete political rule that many Jews were expecting but instead is as hard to nail down as the wind, because the kingdom is in the movement of the Spirit. Instead, when he blows up is when Nicodemus asks, “How is it possible for these things to be?” And, after a lot of complaining about Nicodemus’s failings, his answer to Nicodemus’s question is that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”.

    Since Jesus’s answer appears to boil down to “the kingdom of God is possible because I’m going to die so that you can enter it”, then I would charge that Jesus was frustrated, not primarily by Nicodemus’s ignorance of (baptism) or other aspects of the kingdom, but by Nicodemus’s ignorance of the Son of Man as what makes possible the kingdom. This is emphasized by Jesus pointing out himself one instance from the OT, which Nicodemus should be familiar with, that foreshadows the kingdom: Moses and the serpent.

    (I’m not that interested in arguing about whether John’s particular water reference is a literal reference to baptism—I think there are layers of meaning, and even inasmuch as John refers to baptism, he is primarily interested in the spiritual meaning of it—so my argument here is mostly just a reaction to that one part of your post.)

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