Steve Hays notes that Richard Bauckham has a new essay out on sacramentalism in John 3 and 6. Bauckham rejects the sacramental interpretation, and suggests that when Jesus speaks of being born of water and spirit, the water refers to amniotic fluid.
Since I’ve studied John in some depth compared to other books, I’m going to use this as a launchpad to expound on this pericope up to verse 8. Like Bauckham, I reject sacramentalism. But unlike Bauckham, I don’t think water refers to amniotic fluid. This is partly because there is no record in antiquity of amniotic fluid being referred to in this way. But mostly it is because I think it misses one of the major themes of John altogether.
That said, I’m not going to contrast my interpretation with Bauckham’s. Rather, I’m going to contrast it with sacramentalism. In the process, I think you’ll see how Bauckham’s view falls naturally by the wayside anyway.
First, the passage:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” John 3:1-8
If you’re reading through John’s gospel from the beginning, the first thing you’ll probably pick up in this passage is the ironic misunderstanding. This isn’t the first time someone has misunderstood Jesus, and it won’t be the last (for example, cf John 2:19-21; 4:10-15). John uses ironic misunderstanding to emphasize important theological points; to draw attention to a spiritual reality by recording the confusion of Jesus’ audience when that reality is described in physical terms. It’s a clever persuasion technique; it gets his readers to start looking for the meaning behind Jesus’ words so they won’t be like his dim-witted interlocutors.
So when Nicodemus is confused, we are not—we realize that Jesus is not talking about actual birth. He is talking about something spiritual, which is in some way like actual birth.
But what is it?
Parallelism with being born from above
Being born from above is obviously paralleled with being born of water and spirit (if your Bible says “water and the Spirit” with a capital S, it is taking liberties; there is no definite article in front of “spirit”). Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus to be saying you must be born again—the Greek word can mean “again” or “above”. When he asks for clarification about this second birth, Jesus repeats his statement using different language to explain his point. He isn’t adding something new to what he has already said; he isn’t saying, “You must be born from above and born of water and spirit.” Rather, he is using a very common Jewish idiom, parallelism, which you find everywhere in the Hebrew Bible. We might paraphrase him as follows:
You must be born from above—that is to say, you must be born of water and spirit.
Now, there is something very puzzling about what this means. And what is puzzling is actually not what it means, but rather, what so many people throughout church history have thought it means. Because it is a very widely held opinion from very early on that “water and spirit” means “baptism and the Holy Spirit”.
The implication for our theology of salvation and the sacraments is obvious: if Jesus is saying that baptism and the Spirit are both required to enter the kingdom of God, then we would have to be sacramentalists. We would have to believe that baptism in some sense effects our entrance into the kingdom. Probably, we would have to say that baptism is what regenerates us. That baptism is, as it were, what brings the Holy Spirit to us and remits sin and causes us to become new creations.
But as I said, it is actually puzzling that anyone should think this. Because there are at least five good reasons to really, really doubt it:
1. Presuming a literal meaning is sloppy in light of similar NT language
I want to get this out of the way first, because plenty of people will say, “Well, it’s just obviously baptism language. The water is obviously literal.” And so they say that anyone reading it otherwise is going against the straightforward meaning of the text, and carries a much heavier burden of proof.
Or they’ll say, with an askance look, “So you think that Jesus is saying you must be born of the Holy Spirit and…the Holy Spirit?” Yet all synonymous parallelism sounds implausible when you flatten it out. Take Isaiah 53:5, which says, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” If I looked at you askance and said, “So you think Isaiah is saying the Messiah was punished for our sins and…punished for our sins?” you would say I was missing the point of the metaphor. And indeed I would be.
This kind of skepticism about the possibility of a synonymous parallelism in John 3:5 also requires cherry-picking what you take to be the “straightforward” meaning of the text. If we avoid reading John 3 like a modern newspaper, and instead rely on the entire witness of Scripture as ancient literature, the “straightforward” meaning is far less clear. Consider Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16, where John the Baptist says that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
Does anyone think this was literal fire? Perhaps you see a reference to Pentecost here, but I can concede that (implausible as it seems given John’s audience) without losing anything—because the fire at Pentecost was the Holy Spirit. So John the Baptist’s language is certainly a synonymous parallelism: he is saying that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and…the Holy Spirit.
But if “Holy Spirit and fire” is obviously a synonymous parallelism, then “water and spirit”, which is used in a similar way, can hardly be improbably one! Given their noticeable parity, at best you have to say that John 3:5 could very well be a parallelism, but other factors suggest otherwise (and I will cover those other factors below). Needless to say, this is a much weaker position to argue from than the one many people want to take, which is that reading “water and spirit” as a synonymous parallelism is just obviously unlikely; that it just obviously works against the plain meaning of Jesus’ words.
Put another way, if you’re going to be fair with how you handle the language of the Bible as a whole, you can’t say that the plain meaning of John 3:5 is obviously literal, when the New Testament models extremely similar language elsewhere which is, in fact, obviously figurative. And although I’m getting a little ahead of myself, let me observe that this is especially so when the Old Testament forms such a clear basis for the phrasing being chosen in both cases. Take Isaiah 4:4:
…when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
Here we’ve got washing and burning in the same sentence. The Holy Spirit is both water and fire in the same verse. So again, it’s just prejudicial and inconsistent to start with the presumption that John 3:5 must be talking about literal water, when Luke 3:16 and Matthew 3:11 don’t carry that same presumption about literal fire.
2. What should Nicodemus have expected water to refer to?
Having dispensed with the danger of newspaper exegesis, and established that there is no serious presumption in favor of literal water here—and indeed, a very plausible presumption in favor of synonymous parallelism—let me turn to deeper exegetical questions.
The most serious problem with understanding water as baptism in John 3:5 is that it is grossly eisegetical. What that means is that 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.
That being the case, when we see a phrase like “water and spirit” which seems to demand interpretation, the first question we have to ask is: How would Nicodemus (and indeed Jesus himself) have interpreted it?
If it is referring to baptism, Nicodemus either could not have understood that, or Jesus would have been saying that baptism was a requirement of salvation under the old covenant. But Jesus takes Nicodemus to task for not understanding what he is saying in verse 9—so he must have been meant to understand it—and no sacramentalist thinks that baptism was a requirement of the old covenant!
Now, as an aside, it is true that mikvot, Jewish washing rituals, had developed into something very like baptism by the first century. That’s where baptism comes from in the first place. So Nicodemus could have at least considered that Jesus was talking about being born of a mikveh and spirit. But the obvious problem with that interpretation is that mikvot simply weren’t requirements of salvation under the Old Covenant. They made you ritually pure, but they didn’t justify you or regenerate you. Some Jews by Nicodemus’ day believed that mikvot regenerated Gentile converts to Judaism. And others believed that they returned a Jew to the spiritual state of a newborn. (See the Jewish Encyclopedia entry on baptism.) But it simply makes no sense to imagine that Jesus thought this, or intended to teach it, as if he were reading rabbinical ideas back into the Mosaic covenant. Salvation has always been by faith (Genesis 15:6), and regeneration has always been a unilateral act of the Spirit, as Jesus will go on to explain shortly.
Given that baptism and mikvot cannot be in view, given how common synonymous parallelism was in Jewish language, and given their implicit Old Testament context, is it possible this reference to water is actually a kind of shorthand? Could it be alluding to established terminology from the Old Testament?
Of course. “Water” is a well-used metaphor in the Old Testament. Water makes you clean and quenches thirst—two factors ideally suited to a metaphor in regards to sin (especially in a dry desert area). Sin is filthy; water is used to wash filth off. And sin is separation from the life-giving God; thirstiness is separation from life-giving water.
Hence, the Spirit is often implicitly linked with water through language such as “pouring out”, as in Joel 2:28: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” And often it is far more explicit:
- In Isaiah 1:16 and 52:15, washing is likened to repenting and being cleansed from sin: “Wash! Make yourselves clean! Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes! Cease to do evil!” (1:16)
- In Isaiah 12:3; 49:10; 55:1, water is likened to salvation and spiritual life.
- In Isaiah 35:1; 41:18; 43:19-20, the presence or activity of God is likened to the life-giving presence or activity of water in dry land: “Wilderness and dry land shall be glad, and desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.” (35:1)
- In Isaiah 44:3, the metaphor is taken even further, with water explicitly compared to God’s spirit in a prophecy about the new covenant: “For I will pour out water on a thirsty land and streams on dry ground. [Notice the parallelism:] I will pour my spirit out on your descendants and my blessing on your offspring.”
- In Jeremiah 2:13, water represents spiritual life that proceeds from God: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the source of living water, to hew out for themselves cisterns, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
- In Jeremiah 17:13-14, water is a metaphor for God saving.
- The first half of Ezekiel 47 is all about water as a metaphor for the working of God through the Holy Spirit in the new covenant among the nations.
- Finally, in Ezekiel 36:25-27, one of the great passages about the new covenant, water and spirit are presented together in a way that seems closely similar to Jesus’ use in John 3. Water represents justification (v 25), and spirit represents the transformation that goes with becoming a new creation in vv 26-27:
I will sprinkle on you pure water, and you will be clean from all of your uncleanness, and I will cleanse you from all of your idols. 26 And I will give a new heart to you, and a new spirit I will give into your inner parts, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and I will give to you a heart of flesh. And I will give my spirit into your inner parts, and I will make it so that you will go in my rules, and my regulations you will remember, and you will do them.
So not only is water a spiritual metaphor from the Old Testament that fits very naturally into John 3, symbolizing spiritual cleansing and the activity and power and presence of God, but in Ezekiel 36 there is this exact same kind of coordination between water and spirit. It beggars belief to imagine that Jesus did not intend for Nicodemus to think of this passage when he spoke of being born of water and spirit.
Now, we can finesse this even further, and in a way that certainly draws connections to baptism. But those connections do not work the way sacramentalists think (or pedobaptists for that matter). In fact, they work in the opposite direction. But tracing these lines would require a book rather than a blog post, so I’ll simply point you to Doug Van Dorn’s excellent Waters of Creation.
3. What should we as John’s audience, rather than as Christians more generally, expect water to refer to?
Nicodemus and Jesus certainly would not have understood water to refer to baptism. But we also need to ask what we should we be expecting from John here? How does he talk about water elsewhere in his gospel? How does he talk about being born again? How does he talk about baptism?
And once again, we find a baptismal reading is completely out of touch with the rest of John’s writing. John is supremely interested in Old Testament allusions, in metaphor and figurative fulfillment, in types and shadows that point to the Messiah Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, there is a standing presumption that physical terminology does not necessarily have a physical referent; or that if it does, a deeper spiritual referent may also be in view. And John takes this presumption as given in his own writing.
Now, people say, “But look at how he sets up chapter 3. In chapter 1 he introduces John the Baptist and talks about baptism a lot. And then in chapter 3 from verse 22, he talks about baptism again! Plus there is the water in chapter 2 being turned into wine, and the water in chapter 4 from the well. Surely physical water must be in view here where he is talking to Nicodemus.”
And it’s true—physical water does appear frequently in John’s gospel. Not every instance of the word “water” is meant to be metaphorical.
But notice what this argument misses:
- In chapter 1, John juxtaposes water against spirit. He records how John the Baptist dismisses water baptism in comparison to baptism with the Spirit. In verse 26, he says, “I baptise with water, but…” And verse 33, “this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Water is just a sign of what’s to come. Water baptism is useless; you need Spirit baptism (not to be confused with the Pentecostal doctrine).
- In chapter 2, water is inadequate and must be transformed into wine, representing the inadequacy of the old covenant, and the transformation into the new, better covenant.
- In chapter 4, physical water is again inadequate and only keeps you alive for a bit; it must be replaced with “living water” that wells up to eternal life. And who gives this “life”? The Spirit—the flesh avails nothing (John 6:63).
- In chapter 5, the man at the pool of Bethesda superstitiously thinks the water will heal him. But what actually heals him? Jesus does. John juxtaposes Jesus against the physical water. Jesus is a “replacement” for the water.
- Then in chapter 7 we have the clincher: Jesus cries out:
If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let him drink, the one who believes in me. Just as the scripture said, “Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.” Now he said this concerning the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were about to receive. John 7:37-39
So here, we have John explicitly explaining that when Jesus says “water” in the context of salvation, he is talking about the Spirit (and definitely not about baptism). In other words, John is directly confirming that yes, in the places where it would be odd for water to be referring to the physical element, his Jewish audience should read it as the same metaphor they already know from the Old Testament. And he’s helping out any non-Jewish readers by giving a quick explanation of what “water” represents in Jewish thought; namely spirit.
4. Like begets like
In chapter 1, John has already used this language of being “born”. If you were reading his gospel through, this would still be fairly fresh in your mind:
But as many as received him—to those who believe in his name—he gave to them authority to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a husband, but of God. John 1:12-13
Notice the parallel:
Born of God (1:13) = born from above (3:3) = born of water and spirit (3:5)
In fact, this whole segment in chapter 3 is an expansion on John’s summary of spiritual rebirth in chapter 1. He not only expands on the meaning of being born of God, but he also illustrates the complete uselessness of human effort; ie, that being born of blood, of flesh, of the sexual union of a husband with his wife, is utterly impotent to save.
Now again, we can easily miss this. We don’t naturally think that being God’s children, being included in the covenant, is something that happens by birth. That’s just not how it works under Christianity. But in Judaism, that is exactly how they thought it worked. “I’m a Jew, I’m descended from Abraham, I’m in the covenant—therefore, I am one of God’s children.”
This would be a major sticking point for John’s audience.
And his argument in response is: no. God is spirit; not flesh. So being born of the flesh, to be born in the normal human way, just produces more people. It doesn’t make them like God. To be like God, you must be reborn of the spirit. Like begets like. Flesh begets flesh. Spirit begets spirit.
So if “water and spirit” is to be taken as a mixture of physical and spiritual elements, this completely undermines his argument. Because baptism is a ritual of the flesh. Whereas if “water and spirit” is a reference to Ezekiel 36, and means, in effect, “justification and regeneration” or “forgiveness and transformation”, or “being seen as righteous and given a new and changed heart”, then we can understand him perfectly.
This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that Jesus labors the point for another three verses, but focuses exclusively on the concept of spirit. He emphasizes this further with another extremely common metaphor—wind—to reiterate that the spirit saves. If the water was physical, we would expect him to give it equal treatment; but if it is a synonym for the work of the Spirit, then in fact he does give it equal treatment, by focusing exclusively on the Spirit.
5. The wind blows where it wishes
This brings us to the other point John is drawing out from chapter 1—as well as furnishing us with further proof of something John is always seeking to show: that Jesus is the Messiah who has ushered in the new era promised in the Old Testament. Notice the strong implication in chapter 1 that, since those who believe in Jesus are not born of the flesh or the will of man, belief in Jesus is not up to us, but rather up to God. Here, John re-emphasizes this with the metaphor of wind.
Just as the wind can neither be controlled nor understood—and if you think that has changed, by all means tell me what the weather will be like next Sunday—so it is with how the Spirit transforms people. He is mysterious and powerful, and although we cannot see him, we know he is there because his effects are unmistakable.
You see how this again eliminates baptism as being in view; if baptism achieved regeneration, the Spirit would be subject to our rituals; coming when we called him, and not blowing where he wished at all!
Now as I mentioned, “water and spirit” is all but an explicit allusion to Ezekiel 36; so it should be no surprise that when Jesus continues his explanation through the analogy of the wind blowing, this in turn seems to be an allusion to Ezekiel 37. And as you read this, bear in mind that the word for “breath” and “spirit” and “wind” are all the same, in both Hebrew and in Greek:
The hand of Yahweh was upon me, and he brought me by the Spirit of Yahweh, and he let me rest in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. And he led me all around over them, and look, very many on the surface of the valley, and look, very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
And I said, “Lord Yahweh, you know.”
And he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and you must say to them, to the dry bones, ‘Hear the word of Yahweh! Thus says the Lord Yahweh to these bones: Look! I am bringing into you breath, and you will live! And I will lay on you sinews, and I will let flesh come upon you, and I will cover you over with skin, and I will put breath into you, and you will live, and you will know that I am Yahweh.’”
And I prophesied just as I had been commanded, and there was a sound at my prophesying, and look! A rattling, and they came together—the bones! Bone to its bone! And I looked, and indeed, sinews were on them, and flesh went up, and skin covered over them upward, but breath was not in them. And he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and you must say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh from the four winds: Come, O spirit and breath, on these dead ones, so that they may live!’”
And I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they became alive, and they stood on their feet, a very, very large group. Ezekiel 37:1-10
You see how the people in this passage are dead. They’re not just mostly dead, slightly alive, as Max from The Princess Bride would put it. They’re extremely dead. Good and dead. So dead that there’s nothing left but bones, and the bones themselves are dry. If they were any deader, they wouldn’t even exist at all; they’d just be dust. They are brought to life entirely by God. They don’t cooperate. They don’t make the first move. They don’t get given any choice in the matter. And just as the wind blows where it wills, God also chooses whom he wills to revive.
The metaphor of wind, and the metaphor of rebirth, reinforce each other. The wind is inexplicable and outside our control; and in the same way, being born is something done to us rather than by us. The Greek word for “born” can refer either to the act of the father in begetting, or to the birth by the mother; in either case, the point is that neither our conception nor our birth is something we choose. In fact, it is literally incoherent to talk about choosing to be conceived! It is something done to us. It is not something we ask for; it is not something we could ask for. In the same way, we cannot choose to be born again. God chooses.
Children of God
The metaphor of being born also brings us, finally, to the point of the passage for us. What it means—both to John’s original audience, and still to us today.
Simply put, birth is how we procreate. Birth is how we make families. And so the birth metaphor shows us that God is building a family—a family of people he has chosen. It is a family that “procreates” not by birth of the flesh, but by birth of the the Spirit.
This directly challenged John’s Jewish audience. They would have believed themselves to be members of God’s family already. Were they not children of the promise? Were they not descendents of Abraham? Surely it was only those who apostatized, who turned away from the law and the promises, who would be cast out? Every Jew was God’s son or daughter by default…weren’t they?
Yet Nicodemus, like Paul, is a Jew of Jews. A Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—a ruler of Israel. If anyone has a place in God’s kingdom, if anyone is to be adopted as one of God’s sons, surely it is him. If a man of his status and learning, a man of such righteous observance of the law, a man who is a patriarch of the Jewish family, cannot even see the kingdom of God, then who can?
And of course, this is precisely the point. Not even the best man, not even the best Jew, can see God’s kingdom under his own steam. He needs to be completely changed. Regenerated. For anyone to see the kingdom, they must become what Paul calls a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). They must be recreated after the model of Jesus, instead of the model of Adam.
Through the use of the expression “water and spirit”, John illustrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s messianic promises. At the same time, he jolts his Jewish audience from their complacency about being included among God’s children, by claiming that it is not those who are born of flesh—namely of Abraham—but those who are born of spirit, who will inherit God’s kingdom when it is finally fulfilled.
And as it challenged them, it should challenge us. How many people in the church fall into precisely the same trap as the Jews? How many people in the church say things like, “My family has been Christian for generations”? How many assume that because their parents were Christians, they are Christians? Indeed, haven’t ideas like baptismal regeneration and pedobaptism caused exactly this kind of thinking? How many professing believers don’t even consider that being Christian means being born again of spirit—something they have no control over and cannot do themselves—rather than simply having been baptized? Or coming to church on Sunday? Or not getting drunk, not saying certain words, taking the Lord’s supper, being on the morning tea roster, and so on?
How many people in the church wrongly think, like Nicodemus, that they will see the kingdom of God because they tick the right boxes—that because they involve themselves in God’s community, that is what makes them God’s children?
John wants us to consider very carefully what we are trusting in when we make our claim on the inheritance of the saints; when we trust that we will see and enter God’s kingdom. Will we see and enter it? Has the Spirit changed us? Is he moving visibly in our lives, producing the fruit that Paul speaks about in his letters? Or are we trusting in our heritage, in our family, in our community connections, in our doing and not doing the right things? Are we trying to enter the kingdom by works of the flesh, or are we relying on the work of the Spirit?
The modern church needs this challenge perhaps even more than John’s Jewish readers did.
What is it that we are seeking? What is it that we are attracted to? What is it that we want to join ourselves to? What is it that we trust for our inheritance? Is it spectacle? Is it entertainment? Is it the traditions we find comfortable? Is it our friends at church? Is it our Christian family?
Or is it the Spirit of Jesus within us, testifying that we are genuinely children of God, and heirs of his inheritance?