by Jerry Shugart

John 3:5-8

"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. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (Jn.3:5-8).

Washing of Water by the Word

In my exposition of Titus 3:5 on the previous page we saw that in "type" the word "water" can be referring to the "word," as illustrated by the following verse:

"Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word" (Eph.5:26).

Here Sir Robert Anderson explains this typological relationship: "How could the defiled Israelite gain access to the sacrifice of the great sin-offering for purification? Water which had flowed over the ashes of the sacrifice was sprinkled upon him. We know what the sacrifice typified, what did the water typify? What is the means by which the defiled sinner is brought into contact, as it were, with the great sin-offering of Calvary? By 'the word of the truth of the Gospel'" (Anderson, The Bible or the Church? [London: Pickering & Inglis; Second Edition], pp.226-227).

One Birth and Not Two

In order to understand the Lord Jesus' words it is first necessary to understand that He referred to only one birth and not two. Anderson wrote:

"Now, first it is essential to notice that this is not a twofold birth (of water, and of the Spirit), but emphatically one - a birth of water-and-Spirit, in contrast with the birth which is of flesh. This is not obvious in a translation; but in the original it is unmistakable. And the context emphasises it, for in the very next sentence, and again in verse 8, the water is omitted altogether, and the new man is spoken of merely as 'born of the Spirit.' It follows, therefore, that whatever the water signifies it must be implied in the words "born of the Spirit," and every one who has been "born anew" has been "born of water and the Spirit" (Ibid., p.222).

Robert V. McCabe agrees, writing that "in v. 5 the preposition 'ek' governs two nouns, 'hydor' and 'pneuma,' that are coordinated by 'kai.' This indicates that Jesus regards 'hydor kai pneuma' as a conceptual unity. If 'hydor kai pneuma' is a conceptual unity, this phrase may be taken either as a 'water-spirit' source or a 'water-and-Spirit' source of birth. A good case can be presented for either view in the context of John 3:18. With either view, there is one birth that is characterized either as 'water-spirit,' or 'water-and-Spirit.' Neither of these understandings suggest that there are two births, physical and spiritual" [emphasis added] (McCabe, "The Meaning of 'Born of Water and the Spirit' in John 3:5," Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal [Fall 1999], p.85-107).

From this we can understand that the new birth was accomplished by the gospel that comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. Here the Apostle Peter referred to both elements:

"...by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven...Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God...this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you" (1 Pet,1:12,23,25).

Type and Antitype

Let us go back in order to see the typological relationship in regard to this birth of water and Spirit. In His sermon to Nicodemus the Lord Jesus spoke of regeneration in connection with the "individual" sinner as well as with the "nation" of Israel. He told Nicodemus:

"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (Jn.3:3; NIV).

To this Nicodemus asked how he could be born again when he is old, and the Lord Jesus said: "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" (Jn.3:5-6; NIV).

Previously the Lord had been speaking of an individual's regeneration but He now begins to speak of the nation of Israel's regeneration. The Lord shifts from using the second person "singular" pronoun "you" to the second person "plural":

"You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (Jn.3:7-8; NIV).[ A footnote in the NIV at verse seven says, "The Greek is plural."]

Nicodemus still not understand so he asked, "How can these things be?"

By the Lord's reply we can understand that Nicodemus should have been aware of some truth in the OT Scriptures which spoke of a regeneration by the Spirit: "Art thou a teacher of Israel, and knoweth not these things?" (v.10).

Nicodemus should have been aware of the prophecies that speak of the blessings of the New Covenant promised to the nation of Israel. In the thirty-sixth chapter of Ezekiel we see "water" being sprinkled on that nation and the Lord putting His Spirit within that nation (Ez.36:25,27).

Then in the very next chapter we see verses describing the regeneration of the nation of Israel, and these same verses use similar language about the "wind": "This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.' So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet--a vast army...Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live" (Ez.37: 9-10, 13-14).

These verses are in regard to the vision of "the valley of dry bones" saw by the prophet Ezekiel. The bones are likened to the nation of Israel being in the grave--"These bones are the whole house of Israel" (Ez.37:11). Charles H. Dyer writes that "the breath of life the corpses received symbolized the Holy Spirit, promised in Israel's New Covenant" (Walvoord & Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary; Old Testament [ChariotVictor Publishing, 1985], p.1298).

Because Nicodemus was ignorant of these prophetic passages that speak of Israel's New Covenant the Lord told Him: "I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" (Jn.3:12; NIV).

The "earthly things" to which the Lord refers is the regeneration of the "nation" of Israel. The "heavenly things" are in regard to an "individual" believer's regeneration.

Anderson writes that "the Lord's words to Nicodemus referred to some Old Testament Scripture with which he ought to have been familiar. Nor is there any doubt what that Scripture was, namely, Ezekiel xxxvi.- xxxvii., a prophecy that was greatly cherished by the Jew; and ignorance of it would have been as discreditable to a Rabbi as ignorance of the Nicodemus sermon would be to a Christian theologian. There we read, 'I will sprinkle clean water upon you. . . . And I will put My Spirit within you' (ch. xxxvi. 2527). And in chapter xxxvii. we have the vision of the valley of dry bones, when the prophet is told to call upon the dry bones to 'hear the Word of the Lord'; and to prophesy to the Spirit to breathe upon them. The water of Ezekiel's prophecy was 'the water of purification' of Numbers xix. Water which had flowed over the ashes of the sin-offering had efficacy to cleanse the sinner. And the antitype of that water is the Word of God by which we are born again (1 Peter i. 23). When, therefore, the Lord went on to tell Nicodemus of eternal life through faith in Him as lifted up upon the cross (V. 14), He was unfolding the meaning of that Ezekiel prophecy, and of the type to which, as every Rabbi recognised, it so clearly referred" (Anderson, Misunderstood Texts of the New Testament [Kregel Publications, 1995], p.62-63).

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