What Does Water Mean in John 3:5?

May 8, 2012 — 5 Comments

What does “water” mean?  In John 3:5 Jesus tells Nicodimus,

I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.

Quite a few interpretations have been proposed.

  1. Water is natural birth.
  2. Water is baptism.
  3. Water is repentance.
  4. Water is the Word of God.
  5. Water is the Holy Spirit.

Which is right?  How should we decide?  Is it all just a matter of opinion?


Context is Key

No it’s not a matter of opinion.  Context is the key to interpretation.  You’ve heard the mantra in real-estate, “location, location, location.”  Well in interpretation its, “context, context, context.”  The location of a verse matters in its interpretation.

Think of the word “hand,” for instance.  What do I mean?  Without context “hand” could have quite a few different meanings.

  • the hired hand fixed the railing
  • his hand was illegible
  • he wanted to try his hand at singing
  • on the one hand…, but on the other…
  • I didn’t hold a good hand all evening
  • The hands read 3:25
  • give the little lady a great big hand
  • hand me the spoon, please
  • hand the elderly lady into the taxi

we can see the words meaning more clearly in context.

Beyond the Verse

Of course most of those who know John 3:5 are familiar with its immediate context.  It appears in Jesus’ night time conversation with Nicodimus.  In John 3:3, Jesus says,

I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.

Nicodimus is dumbfounded

How can a man be born when he is old…surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!

Jesus then rephrases his earlier statement

I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of god unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

The context appears to indicate that water refers to natural birth.

Beyond the Chapter

But there’s an even broader context to John 3:5 that others pick up on.  Two chapters earlier, in John 1:32-33, John the baptist testifies,

I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a a dove and remain on him.  I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

Here water and Spirit are linked in the Baptist’s ministry and testimony.  John baptizes with water but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  If John 3:5 is linked to this verse, water could possibly refer to baptism (or repentance which John’s baptism is said to represent).

A Look to the Whole Book

But there’s still a greater context which defines the meaning of water.  Water isn’t simply confined to these two scenes.  Water is almost everywhere in John!

  1. John says three times that he baptizes in water (1:26, 31, 33)
  2. Jesus turns water into wine (2:1-10)
  3. Jesus says we must be born of water and the spirit (3:5)
  4. John baptizes at Aenon near Salim because “there was much water there.” (3:23)
  5. Jesus promises the woman by the we’ll living water (4:4-28)
  6. The lame man wants to get healed in the troubled waters of Bethesda (5:7)
  7. Jesus walks on water (6:19)
  8. Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink (7:37-39)
  9. Jesus heals blind man in pool of Siloam (9:6-7)
  10. Jesus washes his disciples feet (13:4-5)
  11. Water flow from Jesus side (19:34)

With the exception of John’s baptism and Jesus walking on the water, these scenes do not appear in Matthew, Mark or Luke.  They are entirely unique to John’s gospel.

Is there a unified meaning to water?  How does each shed light on the others?  If context is key to interpretation, we’ve got to start by reading all of John.

What do you say?  How do you interpret the water?

Matthew Scott Miller

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