“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3–5 ESV)
One of the key themes in John’s gospel is the repeated pictures of “partial” believers. Nicodemus was a partial believer. He accepted that Jesus came from God, but he was not a true believer. Jesus called attention to this when he insisted that a man must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus considered it impossible to start over in life. Therefore, Jesus explained further by describing “born again” as “born of water and the Spirit.” We Christians are programed to see the word “water” and default to “baptism.” After all, what else could it be? Of course, when it comes to “born of the Spirit,” we might not have the slightest idea what Jesus meant. To understand Jesus’ teaching, we need to first be Nicodemus and hear what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus. What was the original message?
Jesus gave us a clue to what he expected of Nicodemus when he said, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things” (verse 10)? Jesus’ rebuke should change our perspective. Jesus did not tell Nicodemus something new; he told him what he should have already known. As a teacher of the Law, Nicodemus should have understood what it meant to be born of water and the Spirit. Therefore, Jesus was not talking about baptism because Nicodemus could not have known what it meant to be baptized into Christ and enter the kingdom. Whatever born of water and the Spirit meant it must have been explained in the Old Testament for Jesus to expect Nicodemus to understand it.
The text that best reflects Jesus’ words is Ezekiel 36:25-27 (in fact, all of Ezekiel 36-37 are helpful in fully understanding the rebirth principle). The context of Ezekiel 36 is God shaming Israel for profaning his holy name. In order to correct this, God promised, “through you I will vindicate my holiness” (36:23). Here is God’s explanation of how he would do this:
“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.” (Ezekiel 36:25–27 ESV)
Did you see the “water and the Spirit” in the text? God would work in two ways. He would cleanse them by sprinkling clean water on them and he would put his Spirit within them in order to change their heart and spirit, causing them to walk in his statutes and to be careful to obey his rules. It is of first importance to note that this work is done by God. It is not something man could do. Only God can cleanse with clean water; only God can change hearts – and this work of God is what Nicodemus needed to know.
Consider more carefully the phrase “born again.” Both the NET Bible and the NRSV translate, “born from above.” NET Bible translators point out that this is the primary intent and that the word is used three other times in John, always with the same “above” meaning: 3:31; 19:11, 23. This fits well with how John introduced his gospel: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13, ESV). In other words Nicodemus, you cannot enter the kingdom by physically descending from Abraham, by your own will (circumcision), or by human will or power. Only God can birth you and that is the only way to enter the kingdom.
If only God can birth us, how does he do it? How does God change our hearts and put his Spirit in us so that he causes us to be careful to obey him? Paul explains:
“And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:5–6 ESV)
Here is a great summation of the work of the Spirit in our hearts and how his work changes us. God’s love was poured into our hearts through the Spirit. But how? Verse six tells us: while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. When God spoke in Ezekiel of the work of the Spirit in our hearts, he was talking about what Jesus would do on the cross. Ezekiel 37 gives the picture of God putting his Spirit in the dead Israel nation and bringing it to life. The vision of the dry bones was not just about physical Israel; it was ultimately about us, spiritual Israel. That is made clear later in Ezekiel 37 when “David” is pictured as reigning over them. David is referencing the Messiah.
Consider, what caused you to love God? What caused you to loathe yourself for your sins (Ezekiel 36:31)? What causes you to “be careful to obey his rules” (Ezekiel 36:27)? It is the cross. The love of God through the cross melted our hearts and changed us. Let’s make this clear. When someone today claims to be a Christian, claims to have God’s Spirit in them, and yet also claims that God isn’t picky about obeying him, that person has not been born again. If one has the Spirit of God, he will “be careful to obey my rules.” That is what God said through Ezekiel.
Baptism and Born Again
When Jesus told Nicodemus of his need to be born of water and the Spirit, he was referring to the work God needed to do for him to enter the kingdom. God does that work through the cross when we submit to God’s work in baptism. Paul speaks of this in Colossians: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12). Who does the “circumcision” that cuts off the sins of the flesh? Christ does; it is the circumcision of Christ. Who is doing the work of raising us and changing us? It is “the powerful working of God.” When we submit to baptism God is “sprinkling clean water” on us; thus born of water. As we allow the knowledge of God and love of God to penetrate our hearts it causes us to love him and be careful to obey him; thus born of the Spirit.
The Danger of Teaching Baptism Simplistically
Can you see how we can make the same mistake as Nicodemus? For a Jew, circumcision was the key to being in the Israel kingdom – a mechanical, fleshly process that became for the Jew the magic pill that provided entrance into heaven. Too often, baptism is taught in the same mechanical way as if it is a replacement of circumcision. This is why children often want to be baptized. They see the mechanical, fleshly action, but they lack the knowledge of God that causes them to be drawn to Jesus (John 6:44-45). Hosea 6:6 indicts us in this matter: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offering.” Baptism is worthless if we have not been drawn by the love of God and the knowledge of God. If we are truly born from above, where is the “new heart and new spirit?” Where is evidence of being “careful to obey his rules?” Where is the “loathing of ourselves for our sins?” Where is the steadfast love for God that has been generated in our hearts (Deut. 30:6)? Being immersed or circumcised does not cause those things to happen, and that is what Jesus was telling Nicodemus.