Theme: Born of Water and Spirit
In this week’s lessons we look at the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, and learn of the need to be born again, which can only happen by the sovereign working of God through the Holy Spirit.
Scripture: John 3:1-3
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Well, that’s a parallel statement with what Jesus just said. Nicodemus has to be born again, and he has to be born of water and the Spirit. It’s this second part in verse 5 that carries the first part in verse 3 a little bit further. It’s a way of saying that being born of water and the Spirit is how you’re born again. Now, how are we to understand that? What does that mean, “to be born of water and of the Spirit”?
There’ve been many different interpretations of that. And if you study that in Bible commentaries, you’ll find a number of them. There’s a modern interpretation that goes like this. When it says “of water and the Spirit,” “water” refers to physical birth, because the birth of a child is accompanied by the release of the amniotic fluid from the mother; and “the Spirit”—well, that is the second birth. In this case, what Jesus is saying is that unless you’re born physically and then you’re born spiritually, you can’t enter the kingdom of God.
The only problem with this is that it is a very modern way of looking at it. Nobody in the ancient world talked about water in those terms. In addition, it would be rather pointless for Jesus to say to Nicodemus, “In order to enter the kingdom of God, first you have to be born once in a physical sense, and then you have to be born again. There wouldn’t be any point in talking about the physical birth.
There are other people who look at it sacramentally. According to that view, they’re saying that in order to enter the kingdom of God you have to be baptized, and then you have to be born in the Spirit. Well, the problem with that is that it isn’t true. Baptism is a sign of something that happens internally, but it’s not the means by which we enter the kingdom. We’re not saved by baptism. For another thing, the order is wrong. In order to enter into the kingdom we are not first baptized and then born of the Spirit.
Some have taken these words as symbols of something else, seeing it as a reference to cleansing, in the case of water, and then as a reference to power, in the case of the Spirit. William Barclay is one who understands it this way. The problem with this is that it’s bad theology. You go elsewhere in the teaching of the New Testament, and you find that you’re not saved by cleansing and empowerment. That is something we need when we sin, but that’s not how you get saved.
Another idea has been put forth by Kenneth Wiest. He is looking at the connective word “and.” Where we translate it as “water and the Spirit,” the Greek word for “and,” which is kai, can also mean “even” in the sense that the second term is an equivalent of the first. If that’s the case, then what Jesus says is this: “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water, even by the Spirit, he can’t enter the kingdom.” In other words, this birth by water is a spiritual birth. He’s really only talking about one thing here, according to Wiest.
Now it is certainly true that Jesus is talking about a rebirth by the Spirit, but I want to suggest that, in my judgment at least, something else is involved. I think the problem that we have with these two words is that one of them occurs literally and one occurs in a symbolic or metaphorical way. Actually, the word “water” is followed by the word “breath.” Now that means that if you were going to translate both literally, you would say “water” and “breath.” And if you’re going to translate both in order to involve their metaphorical meanings, then if you translate breath by “spirit” you ought to translate water by whatever water stands for.
Review the different interpretations people have had to explain the idea of water and spirit.
What are some difficulties that were pointed out with some of these views?
Application: When you come across a piece of biblical teaching that you do not understand, what are some things you can do to help?