In the John 3 conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus emphatically told the Pharisee leader that he must be born again (verses 3, 7) and “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (verse 5) The idea of the kingdom of God was very important to the Pharisees so this was a critical matter. It is also a critical matter for Christian believers.
Some preachers and writers take “born of water” to mean water baptism, thereby making baptism absolutely necessary for one to be a follower of Jesus, to be in the Kingdom. This is wrong. Many have taught error because they have not examined the context. Bear with me.
Many bible versions indicate in the margin that the phrase “born again” can just as readily be translated “born from above”. The context deals with spiritual birth, a birth from God and not from man just as we read at the beginning of the Gospel of John that those who receive Jesus, who believe in His name were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (1:12).
Look at Nicodemus’ question “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” The context doesn’t allow us to read baptism into Jesus’ words. No. The Pharisee understood Jesus to say that a second birth was necessary, but to him this seemed absurd, especially for someone elderly. Judaism actually taught eight different steps one could take, each seen as being “born again”.
Nicodemus had already been “born again” many times. A Jew could be “born again” by being baptised, by immersing himself and then he was ritually clean. Pharisees immersed themselves very frequently.
Nicodemus could also be “born again” when going through bar mitzvah, or when getting married, becoming ordained as a rabbi, or being the head of a rabbinic academy (yeshiva)—if he lived long enough. That’s why he asked Jesus “How can a man be born when he is old?” Time was running out for him.
Three times Jesus underlined the importance of this question. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. “Born again” means just that—again, born a second time, born from above. “Born of water” is the physical birth, immersion in watery fluid in the womb and the experience of the waters breaking at birth which we all experience. And this element must come first!
Jesus is contrasting two elements in these verses: first the water and second, the Spirit: That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Birth by water means born of flesh, physical birth, out of the womb of his mother.
Again he repeats, Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You (it’s plural in Greek here—‘you all’) must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The contrast continues—you can name the origin of physical birth, but you cannot tell the origin of spiritual birth.
Jesus then in the following passage also emphasises believing and believing alone: whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. There is no baptism mentioned in these words—salvation is not through any human act such as baptism or even obedience to the call for baptism. It is through faith in the grace of God, in the son of God, in Christ crucified, not of works, lest any should boast.
The passage continues “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. Condemnation comes by disbelief cf Acts 4:12.
If baptismal regeneration were true then condemnation is coming for millions upon millions of believers who have failed to be baptised no matter how godly and how full of the love of Jesus (verse 17).
To be continued!
Ian, great article. Reading through the responses though I feel an important point is missed by some readers, which is that the word “baptism” may not imply “by water” and that “repent and be baptized” is perfectly valid and correct and doesn’t necessarily mean water baptism.
Mark 1:8 “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.”
Luke 7:29 “And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.”
So the word “baptism” doesn’t imply water baptism and “repent and be baptized” would either mean “repent and be baptized (twice)” or “repent and be baptized (once)” depending on whether you believe water baptism is a requirement or not, since obviously John’s water baptism is inferior to Jesus’ spirit baptism. Or are people suggesting John’s baptism lead’s to salvation and Jesus’ baptism is optional? On what basis?
1:Peter 3:21 “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”
So water baptism was seen as an appeal to God for a good conscience, with sins symbolically washed away with the death of the old man. That appeal for a good conscience was critical, and more important than an act of water immersion, so as you pointed out, you find in Acts gentile believers being filled with the holy spirit before they had been water baptized. God recognized the cry of their heart and answered with salvation and the baptism of Jesus. They repented and were baptized, in fulfillment of scripture, and after they were baptised they then went and had a water baptism. I suspect that the first baptism, the spirit one, was what scripture meant when it says “repent and be baptized”, which leads into Mark 16 “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Oh, and if we all have to speak in tongues to validate our being spirit baptized then maybe we should all take the poison test too 🙂
It seems to me that John 3:5 and John 3:6 are paired together, contrasting the two sources of birth with the two outcomes. Water gives birth to flesh, spirit gives birth to spirit. Taking John 3:5 in isolation misses the point Jesus was making. Also the word “again” doesn’t appear anywhere in the John 3 passages. It’s a mistranslation of the original Greek word that actually means “from above”. The incorrect phrase “born again”, which isn’t in the text, leaves in the imagination the idea of a second water birth, while Jesus had to repeat himself to Nicodemus to get across the message that “born from above” really does mean “born from above”, that a second water birth would help no-one since water only gives birth to flesh and what is required here is a new spirit.
Thanks Stewart. There are some valuable insights in your comments. Yes, the John 3 passages must be taken as a whole. Why do people not examine the context? And yes, the Acts 10 story of the gentiles experiencing “the Holy Spirit falling on them” certainly fulfills John’s prophecy in Mark 1:8 that Jesus will baptise in Holy Spirit. The Greek word ‘baptizo’ occurs many times in the N.T. when water is not in view. I hope to touch on this in the next post.
The poison test? What an interesting thought. But of course, to insist that believers must show some ‘initial evidence’ to validate their spiritual fullness is a separate issue. There are no cases recorded in N.T. of drinking any deadly thing to settle this, whereas there are multiple references to speaking in tongues occurring in Acts texts–speaking in tongues was the usual accompaniment.
In a natural birth, the father and mother conceive a child in the womb. There is the conception, and then the water.
The seed of Jesus was implanted in the womb of Mary (from on high), and then there is the water.
When we are “born again”, (from on high), there is still a need for the water ……. that’s why Jesus said the process had to be repeated…..born “again”. That’s the part Nicodemus did not understand.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit (the seed of Christ), and then baptized into Christ, His eternal life pattern.
To me baptism is just not an outward symbol or sign, but a real part of what Jesus taught and demonstrated. And He said….”follow me”.
Thanks Trevor for your welcome insights. You make some good observations. But when we examine the whole context in John 3, it is clear Jesus is quoted vividly contrasting the earthly with that “from above”. Nicodemus, a ‘ruler of the Jews’ and a member of the Supreme Jewish Council, knew all about water immersion for the washing away of sins–this was a continual experience for him and each act of immersion was seen by the top eschelon of Pharisees as a ‘born again’ event and an advancement in their career path of righteousness. This idea was not novel. What was novel to Nicodemus was being spiritually born. Jesus ‘most assuredly’ told him yet another birth must take place if he would see the kingdom of God which was not an earthly kingdom but an altogether different kingdom. So “again” does not mean here a ‘second’ birth, but another–an absolutely necessary ‘born again’ experience in which the eyes of his spirit would be enlightened, transformed. This points to something totally new in Nicodemus’ thinking. Nicodemus had to understand the totally radical nature of Jesus’ message which culminated Him speaking about the awful “lifting up of the Son of Man” on the stake, that whoever obeyed and looked to him nailed there for them would be saved. In this Nicodemus would find salvation, and the true righteousness he sought in the Kingdom of God. And it would appear that he did!
Come on Ian, why not admit that the water and the Spirit relate to the same event.. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes at times.
Dear Kevin, we have agreement on at least one very solid fact: “none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes at times”. Now, do I detect a degree of exaspiration in your demand for a recantation from me? Why should you expect me to admit something you want when I am convinced what I have written is true to the whole passage. And why should I bother to maintain this? Well I have done due diligence because this one slender verse has been ripped out of its context in the Gospel of John and used by many to claim that water baptism is essential for salvation and because the ramifications for that dogma are enormous and horrific. Yes, I may be wrong. But you have not convinced me, dear man. You have not really satisfactorily refuted what I have written here is a mistake. Here I stand. Bless you!
I have thought ,”born of water and the Spirit” speaks of the believer being cleansed of sin and sealed by the Spirit(of Christ).
There are still many ancient “ritual baths” remaining in Israel. These were fed with “Living Water”. In NT times cleansing baths/washing would have been a common practice.
Now once and for all time, the believer is cleansed and sealed by the Spirit.
Jesus’baptism by John confirms that he is God’s beloved Son–the One in whom the Father is pleased, for he gives us new birth by cleansing us and sealing us by His indwelling Spirit.
I do agree with you about Baptism. Thanks for writing this.
Ps I have been christened, confirmed and baptised!
Thanks very much Elizabeth for your insights.
Just a couple of things to consider.
The word “believe” or “believeth” (pisteuo) has the connotation of committing to, trusting in, relying on and obeying.
In the book of Mark, one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before he ascended was (in verse16 of chapter 16) – “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;”
Is it necessary for a believer to be baptized?
The bigger issue is why a believer would refuse to be baptized and formally die to their old life and be raised to walk in newness of life… “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:” (Rom 6:3-6)
Thanks Mark– good questions. I agree with what you said about the word “believe”, but that very important word is used dozens of times in the N.T., without any connection to baptism. A few examples: Mark 1:15, 16:17; John 3:16,18; John 5:24, 6:29; Rom 1:16, 4:5, 10:9-10. Similarly there’s the word “faith”.
You ask ‘is it necessary for a believer to be baptised?’ But you did not give the answer to that question. I think I know why! There may be many reasons why a believer does not get baptised. They may not have seen the necessity if baptised in infancy, so John Wesley and countless others. They may believe like Gen Booth and the Salvos that it is not required, repentance and faith being the operative factor for being saved. Are all these millions of believers damned?
Also, a lot depends on the context in which believers receive Jesus, doesnt it? If it’s in the context of people who convince the new believer of the NECESSITY of immersion, then his resistance may be wrong. Believers must proceed in faith, not from trying to please men. I know many believers who though not immersed according to traditional Baptist teaching are yet mature and people who “die to their old life” and live for Jesus, walking in the Spirit, putting on Christ. Romans 6 stresses an immersion in the death of Jesus, not just in water. Paul uses the metaphor of burial rather than drowning–that’s in line with Jesus’ “except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it cannot bear fruit”. This is what is a NECESSITY. What is the fruit of the believer?
Obedience to Jesus has to be from the heart and not from being compelled. Otherwise it’s not true repentance from dead works.
By the way, I do baptise people! But not until I am reasonably sure that they do truly believe in their heart they must be being plunged into the death of Jesus. But I cannot compel anyone–not my job!
Yes, the verse in point, is trying to show the difference between natural and Spiritual birth.
Sadly, many have not seen that the important point about baptism(s), is that the one being baptised, is already “in” what they are being baptised into or in relation to. e.g. with John’s baptism, the candidates had to be in repentance first, the baptism was an affirmation of that, e.g. 2 the Israelites were already with (in) Moses when they were baptised into Moses. , e.g.3 Cornelius was already in the Body (of Christ) when baptised in the Spirit, and then water baptised.
We are already in Christ when baptised into Him.
Thanks Graeme for your edifying comments. I love those examples of those having repented first and then baptism follows. This raises the question of Jesus and His baptism by John–was Jesus repenting of sins? If so, they were our sins, not his, and in his entire coming from the Father among us he was “fulfilling righteousness”–Isaiah 53, and as Paul understood “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf . that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). How awesome is our Lord and our God! Praise Him with me, will you?
Spot on Ian completely agree.Eric
Thank you Eric.
Brilliant dissertation of a misunderstood truth. Rex
Thanks so much Rex. It’s exciting how God moves by His Spirit — how we cant see its origin or its destination, eh?
Hullo Ian. I am surprised at the contents of this post. Is it possible that the words ““Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” refers to two births? What an interesting way to interpret this verse. I always understood, (or misunderstood), this to refer to the one birth, that of being born again. The water being a reference to the repentance,associated with baptism, before receiving Christ.. For without repentance we cannot be born again. MMMMMMMMMMMMM ? Regards, Kevin
Thanks for your comments Kevin. There are many passages in the NT which simply use the word “believe” (On Jesus/on His Name/ and so on) and others which simply use the word “repent” (change your mind!) and others which add baptism. Baptism is usually expressed as being into a certain name (Moses, John, Jesus, etc) rather than water which is understood without saying. It is imperative to believe and to repent. Baptism can then be done for someone who comes as a born again / born from above believer and not before. I think i have given plenty of evidence to show that ‘born again’ means spiritual birth not water baptism. Jesus is speaking here in Jn 3 to a distinguished professor of Judaism–that is the context!
Hullo Ian. What then of the Bibles comment about the start of Jesus’ official ministry as being him preaching repent for the kingdom of God is not far away. Does this connect repentance with being born again? and in that order? After all,baptism is only an outward symbol of repentance and was never intended to suggest salvation by baptism. Did Jesus really mean that a person needs to be physically born before being spiritually born? Isn’t that attempting to fit an excessively long string to the bow?
Thanks Kevin. You make a good point. However looking at the whole context Jesus is contrasting the earthly with that “from above”. It may seem like “an excessively long string to the bow” but the contrast is unmistakable–salvation is from above. Certainly, Jesus advocated water baptism and connects it with PRIOR repentance and faith. Thus we read “what stops me being baptised now?” asked the Ethiopian of Philip Acts 8) and Peter’s exclamation AFTER the Gentiles had received the Spirit “How could we withhold baptism since these had received as we had at the beginning!” (Acts 10). As Graeme Cooksley pointed out, it’s always baptism for those who are already ‘in’, already responding to the Gospel. The baptism acts a bit like planting a stake in the ground, deliberately drawing the line in the sand of old life finished and new life begun.