Does John 3:5 teach that water baptism is essential? This is a common proof text of people who want to say that water baptism is necessary to enter the kingdom of God. Let’s take a look at the verse.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” I think we can certainly feel the weight of this verse. If somebody were to say, “you need to be baptized before you can enter the kingdom of God,” and then pointed to this verse, it would probably persuade the other person. However I would like to suggest that this might not be completely respectful of the context of the conversation.
To Whom Is Jesus Speaking? He is speaking to the Jewish ruler named Nicodemus. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem that day, riding on a donkey. This is significant because the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah indicate that he would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). Nicodemus probably heard about this, and was initially offended. This man claims to be the Messiah? But something changed his mind. What could it have been? Earlier that day, Jesus was in the Temple flipping tables over, accusing the Jews of making his Father’s house into a place of business (John 2:16). It would only be speculation to say what had changed Nicodemus’ mind. Perhaps his mind was not changed at that point, perhaps he was there to trap Jesus in his words.
“Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (v. 2) Whatever Nicodemus’ intentions were, he was very cordial with Jesus. One might expect that he would come outraged that Jesus, an outside, a peasant, the son of a carpenter, had taken for himself the role of the Messiah, riding in on a donkey, and called God his own Father (John 2:16). But he was not angry. He was cordial. He told him that the people were convinced by the signs that he had revealed. He told him that he knew that he was a teacher sent from God because of these signs.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (v. 3) Signs? Signs are not so important. You do not know the kingdom of God by performing or witnessing signs. You know the kingdom of God by being born again. Indeed, only those who are born again will enter into the kingdom of God. I want to emphasize something. This statement would have been sufficient if not for Nicodemus’ response. Jesus did not have to elaborate. It is enough to say, “You must be born again.” His additional details were explanatory. They were not new information, but deeper information. “You must be born again,” would have sufficed. But Nicodemus did not understand.
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (v. 4) I love lines like this. They are so human. This is something that I could see myself asking. Born again? He even mocks him. What, am I supposed to go into my mothers’ womb, and be born again? Quit fooling around. He was thinking in thoroughly natural terms, for some reason. He was completely unfamiliar with this term ‘born again.’
These Jews were obsessed with the law and the outward requirements of it. It came to a point where they, as Jesus said, only cleaned the outside of the cup (Matthew 23:5). They strived to fulfill the law as though it were just a line on a checklist. But they did not have inward renewal. They were not changed. They had not been born again. Circumcision was not merely the cutting away of flesh, but was an outward expression of an inward reality (Romans 2:29). It represented a circumcised heart (Deuteronomy 30:6). It represented that God had given them a new heart, with new desires (Ezekiel 36:26). God made them a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17). They were born again. But Nicodemus did not understand.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (v. 5) Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand that it is not a physical rebirth to which he is referring. It is a rebirth by the power of God. Jesus said something similar to the Samaritan woman. “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst.” (John 4:14). Jesus used ‘water’ in this way consistently throughout his ministry. But Nicodemus is not understanding him up to this point. Patiently, Jesus provides further details. What does he mean when he says, “be born again?” How can Jesus explain this in a way that a teacher of Israel will understand? By appealing to the Old Testament. Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand that this is a rebirth by the power of God. So he utters the phrase that we find in verse 5, that one must be born of water and Spirit.
Water is used in the Old Testament as a symbol of the regenerating work of God (Ezekiel 36:25). It is the power of God. It is a word meant to express the power of God in the life of a believer. It is much more significant than water baptism. Indeed, Jesus does not mention water baptism at all here. If one is to believe that, it must be read between the lines of the text. He does not mention water baptism. He mentions being made a new creature by the power of God. He expounds further.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (v. 7-8) When somebody is born again, it is nothing like being born for the first time, of flesh. It is not a matter of human volition (John 1:13). That is why many translations render this, “born from above.” It is a rebirth, solely by the power of God. One can be water baptized without being born again.
Indeed, it seems that if this is referring to water baptism, we would have to say that everybody who is water baptized is born again. But obviously somebody can go through the activity of water baptism without being born again. It is a matter of the will and activity of God. God gives this person a new life. He made them a new creature. Jesus emphasizes that we do not know how, and we cannot affect it. The wind blows where it blows, and there is nothing we can do about it. So it is when one is born again.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? (v. 10) Jesus expected Nicodemus to have this knowledge. Why? Because he was the teacher of Israel. Perhaps it could be said that he did not expect it. But rather, he identified a flaw in Nicodemus’ doctrine. As the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus should have known that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. But if this is referring to water baptism, is that a justified expectation?
Certainly the Jews practiced water baptism when they initiated Gentiles into the fold. But nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does it suggest that unless one is water baptized, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. If Jesus were referring to water baptism being essential to enter the kingdom of God, he would have been introducing a new doctrine. Despite that, Jesus says, “you are Israel’s teacher, and you do not understand?” This makes no sense if he is talking about water baptism.
Does John 3:5 teach that water baptism is essential? John 3:5 does not mention water baptism. It mentions water. In context, it is a symbol for the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. That is why Jesus said in the next chapter to the Samaritan woman that she will never go thirsty if she drinks the water that he gives her (John 4:14). This is surely not referring to baptism. Water is being applied in the same way here. Secondly, if it were referring to water baptism, that would imply that everybody who was baptized was “born again.” Further and finally, if Jesus were referring to water baptism, it would not make sense for him to expect Nicodemus to have this knowledge as Israel’s teacher, because he would have been introducing a new doctrine.
Does John 3:5 teach that water baptism is essential? No. It may still be essential. But John 3:5 is silent on this matter.
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