Jesus' words to Nicodemus found in John 3:5 are not only startling, but strongly enforced. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
One hears now and then an interpretation of the words born of water as a reference by Jesus to physical birth. Those who maintain this view like to believe that because the human embryo prior to birth is suspended in an enclosure of water and is brought into the world with an accompaniment of that element, Jesus must have had physical birth in mind as He spoke of the necessity of being born of water. This interpretation is not found exclusively in any one Christian sect, but is observed to have its advocates within various denominations, particularly those of the holiness movement. It has long been a favorite view of those who feel greatly driven to combat what they like to call "baptismal regeneration."
Because so many have been baptized by water without any observable accompaniment of the Holy Spirit's work in the heart and without any evidence of a transformed life, there seems to have evolved an attitude that minimizes the value of this sacrament and too often questions it necessity. It is assumed among some that water baptism is essentially an unnecessary religious ritual and that a profession of having been baptized by the Holy Spirit is sufficient enough. Nevertheless, do we not find in the "great commission" Christ's commandment not only to teach and make disciples of all nations, but also to baptize all nations? (Matt 28:19).
It is essential for us to keep in mind that the disciples and the clergy of all ages who have followed them, could only baptize with water, which is the divinely designated sign and symbol of Spirit baptism. Jesus alone baptizes with the Holy Ghost. On the authority of the Scriptures, therefore, it is clear that when afforded the opportunity, believers are commanded to be baptized by water. Therefore, taking Jesus' words born of water as referring to physical birth seems to be another attempt to support the attitude that water baptism is non-essential.
The third chapter of John shows Jesus to be in serious dialogue with a man who had already been physically born many years before. Jesus is stating the conditions necessary for entrance into the kingdom of God. Can it be thought reasonable to suppose that Jesus would really make physical birth a condition for entrance into the kingdom of God? In accordance with such an interpretation, could not physical birth be considered also as a condition for going to hell and everlasting perdition? Does not such a thought and interpretation come close to being ridiculous, if not altogether absurd? Dr. Rob Staples shows that the Apostle John had no thought of physical birth in this passage.
Against it is John's own declaration in 1:13 that birth from God has nothing to do with human birth. More importantly, in 3:3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (or "born from above," as the Greek phrase may best be translated). After Nicodemus' expression of incredulity, Jesus explains the meaning of this by using the phrase "born of water and the Spirit" in verse 5. Thus "born from above" (or "born again") is the equivalent of "born of water and the Spirit." The expression in verse 5 defines that of verse 3. The whole expression "of water and the Spirit" defines the manner in which one is born from above.
No human being ever chose to be physically born. Therefore no conditions were ever met thereby. We are either physically born or we do not exist. It is only after we come into this world and achieve sufficient maturity that we have the capacity to make choices and fulfill conditions set forth by the Master.
It is clear that Jesus was enforcing His conditions for entering into the kingdom of heaven upon a man who, as we formally noted, was physically born many years before. Nicodemus is being told of conditions he has not yet met, but must meet if he is to enter into the kingdom of God - conditions that all who are already physically born must meet. Nicodemus, along with us all must be born again. Jesus is, of course, speaking of a spiritual new birth, typified by water baptism.
It is not altogether safe for one to trust alone in his own understanding. Therefore, a total of more than thirty commentaries were researched by this writer. Without exception they all interpreted Jesus' reference to the necessity of being born of water as referring to water baptism. None has yet been found holding a different view.
We learn from John 3:26 that Jesus was already admitting disciples into His kingdom by the rite of baptism and this seems to explain the allusion to water here. From Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, we read:
A twofold explanation of the "new birth," so startling to Nicodemus [is revealed in this verse]. To a Jewish ecclesiastic, so familiar with the symbolical application of water, in every variety of way and form of expression, this language was fitted to show that the thing intended was no other than a thorough spiritual purification by the operation of the Holy Ghost. Indeed this element of water and operation of the Spirit are brought together in a glorious evangelical prediction by the prophet Ezekiel.
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statues, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them (Ezek 36:25-27).
This commentary goes on to show that this promise in Ezekiel might have come to the remembrance of Nicodemus had such a spiritual understanding not been almost lost in the reigning formalism of his time.
Already had the symbol of water been embodied in an initiatory ordinance, in the baptism of the Jewish expectants of Messiah by [John] the Baptist, not to speak of the baptism of Gentile proselytes before that; and in the Christian Church it was soon to become the great visible door of entrance into "the kingdom of God," the reality being the sole work of the Holy Ghost. Titus 3:5 refers to the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost.
In The Wesleyan Bible Commentary we find these comments by Harvey J. S. Blaney:
Jesus described this experience as being born of water and the Spirit. The beautiful analogy of the new birth need not be encumbered with strained interpretations, such as seeing in the water a reference to a phenomenon of the physical process of birth. The water referred to the rite of baptism. Conversion was very closely associated with baptism... being synonymous in time. Baptism, which was a ritual cleansing, became associated with Christian conversion as the evidence of having accepted the Gospel.
In "A Treatise on Baptism," John Wesley defined this rite as "the initiatory sacrament, which enters us into covenant with God. It was instituted by Christ, who alone has power to institute a proper sacrament, a sign, seal, pledge, and means of grace, perpetually obligatory on all Christians."
In his Journal dated February 5, 1760, he writes: "I baptized a gentlewoman at the Foundry; and the peace she immediately found was a fresh proof, that the outward sign, duly received, is always accompanied with the inward grace." Here and in numerous other references to water baptism, one finds Wesley fully convinced that this sacrament can and should be a means of grace. He persuasively shows water baptism to be a divinely intended means of the new birth in regeneration. However, that statement must be harmonized with his notes upon John 3:5: "Except he experience that great inward change by the Spirit, and be baptized (wherever baptism can be had), as the outward sign and means of it" [he cannot enter into the kingdom of God].
Adam Clarke assures us in the following words that water was used as an emblem of the Holy Spirit's work of cleansing.
The soul was considered as in a state of defilement, because of past sin: now, as by that water the body was washed, cleaned, and refreshed, so, by the influences of the Holy Spirit, the soul was to be purified from its defilement, and strengthened to walk in the way of truth and holiness.
When John came baptizing with water, he gave the Jews the plainest intimations that this would not suffice; that it was only typical of that baptism of the Holy Ghost, under the similitude of fire, which they must all receive from Jesus Christ.... Therefore, our Lord asserts that a man must be born of water and the Spirit, [that is] of the Holy Ghost, which, represented under the similitude of water, cleanses, refreshes, and purifies the soul.
Clarke continued by exhorting sacramentalists not to rely alone upon the external ritual of water baptism. Jesus baptized all his followers with the Holy Ghost and, according to Clarke, this baptism with the Holy Ghost is what essential distinguishes the Christian dispensation from that of the Jewish. "He who receives not this baptism has neither right nor title to the kingdom of God."
The modern holiness movement has obscured the significance of water baptism by making the baptism with the Holy Spirit an experience subsequent to entrance into the kingdom of God. The "one baptism" to which we find reference in Ephesians 4:5, is in reality, the same baptism with a dual manifestation. It consists of an inward, spiritual effusion by the Holy Spirit, outwardly typified by the application of water as its emblem. The comments of Dr. Charles Carter in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary elucidate this passage.
As water baptism, of whatever mode, is an outward sign of the inward work of God by His Spirit in the believer's heart, so the baptism with the Spirit is the fulfillment of what is signified. Thus in each instance it is one baptism.
Water baptism and Spirit baptism have been said to be two halves of one act. That one act is entrance into the kingdom of God. By one Spirit we are baptized into one body (1 Cor 12:13). By the sacrament of water baptism, one not only testifies to having embraced the Gospel and the one Christian faith, but according to early teachings of Methodism, avails himself or herself also of the divine means by which this baptism with the Spirit is to be received, regenerating and giving life to the soul formerly dead in trespasses and sins.
One final word of caution seems appropriate to add to the foregoing discussion. From his comments at the close of Acts 10, we quote Adam Clarke once more as he warns his readers against taking either of two extreme and dangerous attitudes toward religious rites. With water baptism and the Lord's Supper particularly in mind, he writes:
We must beware neither to despise outward rites in religion, nor to rest in them. Most people do either the one or the other. God gives us outward helps, because he knows we need them. But do we not sometimes imagine ourselves to be above that which, because of our scantiness of grace, is really above us? We certainly may overrate ourselves, and underrate God's bounties. He who is taught by the Spirit of God will be saved from both.