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What Does It Mean to be “Born of Water and the Spirit”?

In John 3:5, Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Naturally, this begs the question: What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?

For that matter, perhaps you’re wondering, Why does it even matter?!

Entering the Kingdom of God has profound ramifications for your daily life. This is not something that happens after you die. As you’ll see by the end of this article, those who are “born of water and the Spirit” can expect peace, joy, love, freedom, miracles, and so much more as they enjoy their citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus prayed, “Now this is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” (John 17:3.) In other words, eternal life starts now, and it will change everything about how you live and what is possible.

Trust me: You DEFINITELY want to be born of water and the Spirit!

What Does It Mean to be “Born of Water and the Spirit”?

A gentleman recently wrote me and asked what this term meant. I replied with a question of my own: “Are you asking because you’re not sure what that verse means and want to learn? Or are you asking because you want to see if my opinion is the same as yours?”

There are a lot of folks out there with very strong opinions about this term, and they often like to cause divisions over questionable interpretations—something Scripture warns us to avoid at all costs. My goal here is not to cause division but to help us think objectively about the text and consider why we believe what we believe.

As far as I know, there are three major views on how best to interpret this term. Below we’ll look at the Scripture passage in question, then consider the merits of all three views, and finish with a practical application for your life.

First: Jesus’ Words…

John 3:1-10, 14-15 — 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. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? . . . Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” (NIV, emphasis added)

Option 1: Water Baptism and Spiritual Regeneration

In both of our first two options, being “born of the Spirit” is understood to be about spiritual regeneration — becoming new creations in Christ. Where these two options differ is in how they interpret being “born of water.”

Some suggest that Jesus is talking here about being baptized in water. By all means, I agree with people being baptized! So I’m not arguing against baptism at all. I’ve baptized many people in bathtubs, lakes, pools, and even the bed of a pickup truck. You won’t find me diminishing the value of baptism.

I would, however, be hesitant to say that John 3:5 is supposed to be a reference to baptism. The main issue is that “Christian baptism” wouldn’t have had much meaning to Nicodemus (especially since that particular rite, along with its symbolism of death and rebirth, didn’t yet exist), which would make it strange for Jesus to make an obscure reference like that.

If not Christian baptism, then what about John the Baptist’s “baptism of repentance,” since that was known at the time? This is a reasonable next consideration, but Scripture seems to indicate that John’s baptism was inadequate for the Christian experience. (See Acts 19:3-5.) So if John’s baptism is insufficient for receiving the eternal life about which Jesus was speaking, then that couldn’t be what it means to be “born of water.”

Admittedly, some of the early Christians (like Tertullian, Ambrose, and possibly Chrysostom) said this term was about water baptism, which gives this view a bit of historical weight. That said, some of these same early Christians (especially Tertullian) were known to take nearly every reference to water in the Bible and somehow make it about baptism, so it’s not exactly a scholarly position. It’s a possible interpretation with historical credence, but hard to prove definitively.

Option 2: Human Birth and Spiritual Regeneration

Others—perhaps in an effort to discredit the beliefs of some who say you’re “not saved unless you’re baptized in water”—have suggested that being “born of water” was a reference to natural childbirth and the amniotic fluid that is expelled from the woman just before a baby is born.

But this too is hard to prove since there aren’t really any other historical references to a natural birth being called “of water” in Jewish or early Christian culture. Besides that, Jewish midwives delivered babies and witnessed births, not men, so the “water” imagery wouldn’t even be that openly discussed between two men as a helpful analogy.

The major thing in favor of this view is how in the very next verse—verse 6—Jesus does contrast between natural birth and spiritual birth, saying, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” So it is reasonable to say that this is about humans being not only born of water (as all humans are) but also of the Spirit.

Nevertheless, there are other possible reasons for contrasting flesh and spirit in verse 6, so this isn’t definitive proof either. Like option 1, this too is a plausible and possible interpretation, but it’s hard to say for sure.

Option 3: Heavenly Birth

Still another view is that the entire phrase “born of water and the Spirit” is one complete term referencing only one thing, not two.

In verse 8, Jesus connects the idea of “spirit” to “wind” (note that both are the same Greek word: pneuma). So it’s entirely possible that being “born of water and the Spirit” could have been understood by Nicodemus as though Jesus had said “born of water and wind.” In this view, the term would be referring to “the heavens.”

In Genesis 1:6-8, God “separated the waters” and called the expanse “sky.” The ancient Jewish perspective of “the heavens” is that there is water here on earth but also a canopy of water somewhere at the outer boundary of the sky. Thus the idea of being “born of water and wind” would carry with it a meaning of being “born from the heavens” or “born from above.”

In fact, in John 3:3, where Jesus said you must be “born again,” the Greek word for “again” is anothen, which is a weird word that doesn’t really have an English equivalent. It can be rightly translated or understood as “again” (which would explain why Nicodemus balked in verse 4 at the idea of returning to his mother’s womb), but it also accurately means “from above” or “from a source above” (which might explain Jesus’ clarification in verses 5 and 6—that He was not talking about a second earthly birth but a new birth “from the heavens”).

For clarity sake, note that this same Greek word shows up again in verse 31 of this same chapter: “The one who comes from above [anothen] is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.”

Thus we see that Jesus came from heaven, and He says that we too must be born from heaven in order to enter the Kingdom. The same way we entered the earth by being born from the earth (remember, Adam was made of dust from the ground), we likewise enter heaven by being born from the heavens.

My Personal Opinion, for What It’s Worth:

While all three interpretations are possible, and while all three are reasonable, and while none of the three can be definitively proven, I personally lean toward the third option: that Jesus is using the phrase “born of water and the spirit [wind]” to mean “born from above” or “born from the heavens.” This fits the context established in verse 3 and echoed in verse 31, and it seems to be the most likely meaning Nicodemus might have taken from the conversation.

Not only that, but this particular interpretation makes more sense of John’s later epistle, where he wrote:

1 John 5:6–8 — This is the One who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. (NIV)

If John’s reference to water here is about natural human birth or baptism, then his emphasis on “not water only but water and blood” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

John’s letter confronts the heretical teaching that Jesus had not come in the flesh but was only spiritual. (See 1 John 4:1-3.) If coming “by water” is about coming from heaven, then this passage makes sense as John is saying, “He did not come from heaven only but was also made of flesh and blood.” The Holy Spirit testifies about who He is (in our hearts and through miracles), the heavens testify about who He is (through the star at His birth and the darkness at his death), and the blood He shed at the cross testifies about Him (that he was indeed human).

If you hold to one of the first two interpretations, there is still unity to be had. I don’t think it makes sense to part ways over unprovable interpretations. My view is only an opinion based on my study. But I felt it was best to share my perspective here because it helps give context and clarity to the thrilling “Good News