Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

19 Mar 2012

John 3:5 and the Life-giving Work of the Spirit

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Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (ESV).

A contested issue in John 3:5 relates to the meaning of “born of water and the Spirit.” In this post, I will argue that the best way to interpret these words is as a reference to the cleansing and transformation produced by the Spirit. There are three reasons for this interpretation.

First, this view is based upon the terms used in this phrase. The passive verb, “born of,” stresses that human participation in the new birth, regeneration, is completely passive. In addition, the Old Testament uses “water” to symbolize cleansing rituals, as with hands and feet (Exod 30:17–21; 40:30–32). On one hand, to forsake the LORD is to forsake “the fountain of living water” (Jer 2:13; 17:13). On the other hand, coming to God for satisfying one’s thirst is to experience life (Isa 55:1–3). In the Gospel of John, “water,” as a metaphor, represents life produced by the Spirit (see 4:14; 7:38–39). These uses of “water” are consistent with the spiritual vivification described in this verse. The use of “the Spirit” in John is coordinate with the Old Testament predictions of the Spirit’s quickening work in salvation (see Joel 2:28; Ezek 11:18–20; 36:25–27).

Second, this interpretation of “born of water and the Spirit” is supported by the literary context of John 3. When John repeats a statement, whether it is Jesus’ words or someone else’s, an aspect of the Johannine style is to include minor variations in repeated statements. For example in 6:35, 45, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”; however, he varies this in v. 51: “I am the living bread.” In the context of John 3, Jesus describes the new birth five different times: “born again” (v. 3), “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5), “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6), “born again” (v. 7), and “born of the Spirit” (v. 8). We should note that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6) and “born of the Spirit,” (v. 8) are restatements of v. 5, with the exception that “water and” has been eliminated. Further, we should observe that “again” (anōthen) in “born again” may also be legitimately rendered as “from above.” Support for taking anōthen as “from above” is drawn from it being translated “from above” in 3:31, 19:11, 23. This would indicate the heavenly origination of the new birth. As we noted above with interpreting “water” as a symbol for cleansing, this indicates that the new birth involves the cleansing and life-giving work produced by a heavenly source, the Spirit.

Third, the Old Testament background for this understanding of John 3:5 is drawn from Ezekiel 36:25–27: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (ESV). In v. 25 “water” cleanses from sin, and in vv. 26–27 God’s “Spirit” produces a new heart and new spirit that enable obedience to God’s law. Though this transformation of heart is for the corporate nation, this would suggest that individuals also undergo a spiritual transformation (cf. Jer 31:31–34). Therefore, Ezekiel 36:25–27 provides a context where water and spirit describe cleansing from sin and a spiritual transformation. More specifically, this passage lays a foundation for a proper understanding of John 3:5.

Based upon the terminology in John 3:5, the literary context, and the use of “water” and “spirit” in Ezekiel 36:25–27, “born of water and the Spirit,” therefore, refers to the life-giving work of the Spirit that involves cleansing from sin and spiritual transformation.

5 Responses

  1. Hi Bob,

    Am I wrong in thinking that John’s writing does not evidence use of the article kai in this epexegetical sense – “even”?

    For instance John 1:12: “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, ‘even’ to those who believe in His name” – where the even is epexegetical to aid our English but John’s Greek avoids the article.

    And yet, doesn’t your view of John 3:5 require this?

  2. Bob McCabe

    Hi Ted,

    Thanks for reading my post and for your comment.

    I understand that kai conjoins “water” and “spirit” in such a way that John is describing a conceptual unity, a “water-and-Spirit” source of birth. To give a full explanation requires more space than I have here. However, if you have the time, you can read my support for taking this as a conceptual unity on pp. 96-99 of my article “The Meaning of ‘Born of Water and the Spirit” in John 3:5.” Go to


  3. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for the link to your excellent article.

    I’m still in the “Natural Birth and the New Birth” camp but have been chased by the “water=Spirit” interpretation for years 😉

    If you have time, kindly respond to two concerns of mine.

    The grammatical principle that two nouns governed by a single preposition make a single conceptual unity (“out of water and spirit”) makes sense to me grammatically but not in those cases where context undoes the unity. Unless I misread you, you included as a proof of conceptual unity Mat. 3:11 (“in Spirit and fire”). Thus the new birth in John 3:5 is a “water-Spirit” birth even as Christ’s baptism is a “Spirit-fire” baptism. But isn’t this example undone by Mat. 3:12, “He will gather His wheat into the barn (Spirit-baptism), but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (fire baptism)? And does this not read a little too much Granville-Sharp level of confidence where it may well not belong (1 John 3:18, 2 John 1:3, Eph. 1:8, Col. 1:9)?

    More substantial is the matter of sarx/nephesh in John 3:6 and Ezekiel 36:26. They don’t align, do they? Ezekiel 36:26 uses flesh in a depreciatory sense while Jesus in John 3:6 does not. If Jesus were expecting Nicodemus to be “thinking” Eze. 36:25-26 wouldn’t he likely be confused by Jesus’ change of meaning? Added to this potential confusion is the reality that nephesh is contextually more closely connected to ‘Spirit’ in the Ezekiel passage than ‘water’ is (by way of contrast).

    Thanks for any help you might provide. Blessings.

  4. Rob Nyhuis

    Thanks Bob,

    I read this with interest, along with your 1999 article. I agree that Baptism cannot be of primary interest here (nevertheless, as a Pentecostal, this would helpfully support the subsequence of Spirit Baptism as in Acts!). However, I am still unconvinced that conjoining of water and Spirit negates the apparently clear syntax and context in which natural and spiritual birth are both spoken of throughout. It seems that the rebuke of Nicodemus is for not understanding the need for spiritual birth and the plain reading of the passage connects his comments about natural birth to Jesus’ comments about flesh via this water and Spirit restatement. Does verse 5 really therefore have to be disconnected from verse 6 and does the use of kai in verse 5 really present any problem given that one must be born physically and then also spiritually to have access to the kingdom (you can hardly have the second without the first!)?

    1. Bob McCabe


      Though you are not persuaded by either by blog post or journal article, I appreciate you reading both.

      I am not arguing that the focus of John 3:1–8 is on two births: natural and spiritual. The focus is on the spiritual birth. Natural birth is only used to correct Nicodemus’ misunderstanding. In my journal article, I point out the connection between v. 5 & v. 6 on pp. 108–9.

      May we both grow as we seek to correctly interpret God’s holy word.