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This is a continuation of Part One.

B. Physiological or Procreative Views

1. Water = Embryonic Fluid. An interesting but somewhat bizarre interpretation of “water” is that it refers to fluid discharged at physical birth. Two representatives of this view explain it as follows:

“Now ‘born of water’ . . . is a proper and apt description of physical birth. The unborn babe is enveloped in a membrane containing a quantity of liquid (water) so its birth is out of water. We have all of us been born ‘out of water’ but another birth ‘out of Spirit’ is needed to enter the Kingdom of God.”[13]

“Human birth is preceded by the rupturing of the bag of fluid which has surrounded the baby during its development in the womb. Hence every natural birth is a birth ‘out of water’. This interpretation not only avoids the objections against the other suggestions but links on closely to Nicodemus’ reference to the womb.”[14]

This all sounds “suspiciously modern” and overly “clinical”, as one commentator put it. There is scant evidence that people in the first century spoke of physical birth in such terms. Also, would Jesus have wasted words on something so patently self-evident? It seems out of character with the genius of Jesus for him to affirm that a man must be born once before he can be born twice!

Some have appealed to 1 John 5:6-7 where it is said that Jesus “came by water and blood.” “Water”, they allege, refers to the physical birth of Jesus. It is far more likely that water and blood refer, respectively, to the baptism and death of Jesus, the former that by which he was commissioned and empowered for his work and the latter that by which his work was finished. This would certainly refute the false teachers (who had Gnostic leanings) by showing that Jesus was the "Christ" before and during the baptism and during and after the cross. It wasn't "at" the water (baptism) that Jesus "became" the Christ, but Jesus who "is" the Christ came through the water. The second half of v. 5 is a repetitive and emphatic declaration by John required because of the Gnostic notion that the "Christ" left or departed from Jesus before the cross. John says No. It wasn't just Jesus who bled. It was Jesus Christ!

2. Water = Celestial Semen. An equally interesting and no less bizarre variation to the physiological / procreative model is put forth by Hugo Odeberg. In his study of certain ancient sources (Rabbinic and Jewish-mystical, Philonic, Mandaean, Hermetic), Odeberg suggests the possibility that words such as “water”, “rain”, “dew”, and “drop” contained an allusion to semen. Thus “water” is that which in the spiritual process corresponds to the semen or male seed in the physical process. We should then join the words water and Spirit very closely together and translate it something like “spiritual seed” (cf. 1 Pt. 1:23). Odeberg himself refers to it as “celestial semen”. He writes:

“It may safely be argued, then, that ex hydatos kai pneumatos primarily means ek spermatos pneumatikes, from a spiritual seed, in contrast to earthly, or sarcical [i.e., fleshly] seed.”[15]

A major difficulty with the idea that “water” represents human birth, whether the semen of man or waters in the womb, is that the expression “by water and Spirit” is intended to define the manner in which a person is born “from above”. That is, “water and Spirit” are not contrasted as if describing two different kinds of birth, one physical and one spiritual, but are coordinated so as to describe the one birth which is “from above”, i.e., wholly outside the sphere of human begetting of any kind. The phrase “of water and Spirit” is designed to clarify for Nicodemus what was to him an enigma, namely, the nature and meaning of a birth anothen (“from above”). But would an appeal by Jesus to a rather obscure Rabbinic concept do anything but further muddle the point? It seems highly unlikely that either Nicodemus or the readers of the gospel would be aware of such niceties.

C. Water as Word view

According to this somewhat popular interpretation, “water” is taken as symbolic of the Word (cf. Eph. 5:26; James 1:18; 1 Pt. 1:23-25). This view would fit well with the rest of Scripture on the nature and means of regeneration, but it does not answer well to the context and argument of John 3. Why did not our Lord simply say “of Word and Spirit” (ex rhematos kai pneumatos), as is the case in other texts where regeneration is in view? Also, if the Word is in view, an instrumentality surely different from that of the Spirit, why is it dropped from the narrative in vv. 6-8? And finally, our Lord rebukes Nicodemus for being ignorant of such truth, truth apparently quite conspicuous in the OT. But although the Word is associated with quickening in the OT (Psalm 119:50), it is not associated with “water”.

D. Pneumatological Views

1. Water and Wind. According to Zane Hodges, the phrase should be translated “of water and wind,” and both words are to be taken as references to the physical elements of water and wind. By this “the Lord has directed attention to natural phenomena which originate in heaven but have a vital and vivifying effect upon earth. Indeed, in the semi-arid conditions of the Middle East, the waters that fell from heaven and were brought by the winds that blew in heaven were eagerly desired by men and were obviously indispensable to human life. Thus the response of Jesus in 3:5 to Nicodemus’ incredulous comment in 3:4 is a way of saying that the phenomenon being described is not one which has its origins in an earthly womb, but one rather that comes from above, just as do water and wind.”[16]

Hodges appeals to Isaiah 44:3-5 in which the Holy Spirit’s activity is described as an effusion of water from above, the effect of which in those upon whom it falls is that they spring up like freshly watered plants. He also refers to Ezek. 37:9-10 in which the “wind” also serves as an OT image of the vivifying work of God’s Holy Spirit. Thus water and wind serve as a double metaphor for the work of the Holy Spirit as that work is reflected in the OT.

There is nothing radically objectionable about this interpretation, and if there were no other view that at least as adequately dealt with the material in the passage, it might well command our attention. But there is such a view (see below). Also, in order for this view to be correct, one must translate pneuma in v. 5 as “wind”, somewhat unlikely in light of both verses 6 and 8 where it again appears with the verb gennao, as it does in v. 5, and in those verses clearly refers to the Holy Spirit. Also, as noted below, Ezekiel 36 would have figured more prominently in Nicodemus’ thinking with respect to entrance into the kingdom of God than would have either Isaiah 44 or Ezekiel 37.

2. Water = Holy Spirit. Support for this view is found in John 4:7-15 and 7:37-39 where “water” is undoubtedly a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. The translation would then be: “of water, that is, the Spirit.” The connective kai (“and”) would be taken as either epexegetical or appositional, preferably the latter (cf. Blass and Debrunner, p. 228 [note John 1:16]; A. T. Robertson, 1181; and Turner, Syntax, p. 335, for this use of kai). In other words, the symbol is immediately followed by the thing symbolized, an excellent explanation as to why the word “water” is dropped form discussion in vv. 6-8. If “water” = the Holy Spirit, there would be no need to mention it but once.

But if “water” simply means the Spirit, why did Jesus mention it all? It would appear to be a tautology, yielding a needless repetition. The point is this: unless “water” symbolizes something other than the Spirit or some specific work of the Spirit in the regenerative experience, there is no convincing explanation as to why this word “water” was ever uttered in the first place. For what does it possibly add to the narrative that is not already supplied by the word “Spirit”? Consequently, some have said that “water” is more than a mere synonym for the Holy Spirit, that it refers symbolically to the life-giving operation of the Spirit (as is the case in 4:7-15 and 7:37-39). This is entirely possible, but not the best solution.

3. Water = a Symbol of spiritual cleansing or purification from sin. We now come to the view that I find most convincing. According to this view, when Nicodemus heard the word “water” he would immediately have thought of the religious import of water in the OT (more properly, he “should” have thought of it; his failure to do so evoked Jesus’ rebuke). The religious use or rather the religiously symbolic meaning of water in the OT pointed in one direction: purification. What Nicodemus ought to have thought of first was the indispensable necessity of purification for entrance into the kingdom of God.

That “water” in the OT often signified washing and purifying from the pollution of sin is evident from the following texts: Psalm 51:2-3; Isa. 1:16; Jer. 33:8; Zech. 13:1; Ex. 40:12; 30:20-21; Lev. 14:8-9; 15:5-27; 2 Kings 5:10; Numbers 19; etc. Born “of water” would therefore mean to Nicodemus that entrance into the kingdom of God could only be through spiritual purification from the pollution and defilement of sin (an idea, I might add, no doubt repugnant to many among the Pharisees of his day).

Of all the OT texts dealing with this subject, Ezekiel 36:25-26 is surely the most fundamental. Murray has pointed out that this passage may be properly regarded as “the Old Testament parallel of John 3:5, and there is neither reason nor warrant for placing any other interpretation upon ‘born of water than that of Ezekiel 36:25.”[17] Here is the text from Ezekiel:

“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” (36:25-26).

The two elements of John 3:5 (“born of water and Spirit”) correspond to the two elements of the OT counterpart. Water in both texts speaks of purification. Spirit in both texts speaks of renovation or renewal. These are not to be separated, however, but are to be taken as correlative aspects of the one experience of regeneration: it is a cleansing from sin and an impartation of spiritual life. Murray summarizes well, and I will conclude this study with his comments:

“The understanding of, and entrance into the kingdom of God, the discernment of its meaning and the enjoyment of its privileges, rights and blessings, are conditioned upon a sovereign, mysterious, efficacious activity, of which the Holy Spirit is the specific agent and man the subject, an activity that consists in cleansing or purifying from the pollution of sin and the constituting of a new man, indwelt, controlled and directed by the Holy Spirit, a birth inscrutable as to its mode of operation, nevertheless manifest in the observable fruit of the Spirit consonant with and evidential of, membership in the kingdom of God.”[18]

End Notes

[13] Russell Fowler, “Born of water and the Spirit (Jn 3.5),” The Expository Times 82 (1971):159.

[14] D. G. Spriggs, “Meaning of Water in John 3.5,” The Expository Times 85 (1974):150.

[15] Hugo Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel interpreted in its relation to Contemporaneous Religious Currents in Palestine and the Hellenistic Oriental World (Chicago: Argonaut, Inc., 1968), pp. 48-71.

[16] Zane Hodges, “Water and Spirit – John 3:5,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (July-September 1978):216-17.

[17] Murray, Collected Writings, II:184.

[18] Murray, II:188. John Calvin has been cited as a proponent of both of these latter two pneumatological views, and it would appear from the following statement that such is indeed the case:

“Accordingly He used the words ‘Spirit’ and ‘water’ to mean the same thing, and this ought not to be regarded as harsh or forced. It is a frequent and common way of speaking in Scripture, when the Spirit is mentioned, to add the word ‘water’ or ‘fire’ to express His power. We sometimes hear of Christ baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire, where fire does not mean something different from the Spirit but only shows what is His power in us. It matters little that he puts the word ‘water’ first. This phrase just flows more easily than the other, since a plain and straightforward statement follows the metaphor. It is as if Christ had said that no one is a son of God until he has been renewed by water and that this water is the Spirit who cleanses us anew and who, by His power poured upon us, imparts to us the energy of the heavenly life when by nature we are utterly barren. And to reprove Nicodemus for his ignorance Christ very properly uses a form of speech common in Scripture. For Nicodemus ought at length to have acknowledged that what Christ had said was taken from the ordinary teaching of the prophets. By water therefore is meant simply the inward cleansing and quickening of the Holy Spirit. Nor is it unusual to employ the word ‘and’ explanatorily when the latter clause is an explanation of the former. And the context supports me too; for when Christ at once adds the reason why we must be born again he shows without mentioning water how the newness of life which He requires comes from the Spirit alone. Whence it follows that ‘water’ must not be separated from the ‘Spirit’” (The Gospel according to St. John 1-10 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959], p. 65).