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.