Jesus answered, 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. (John 3:5)
In today’s reading, Christ speaks to Nicodemus of the new birth and the kingdom of God. There are three questions in front of us that we must address:
- What does the new birth refer to?
- What is meant by Kingdom of God?
- What does Christ mean by being born of water and of the Spirit?
What is the New Birth?
This question could occupy (and indeed has occupied) whole books. Let’s look at the context here. When Christ is speaking of new birth – being born again – he certainly cannot mean an amendment of character or a change that man can make in his own life. He is speaking of being made a whole new creature. This is not simply “doing better” or change one’s behavior. It is being made new.
In the course of this discussion, Nicodemus becomes confused. How can these things be (v.9)? Christ does not say “Well, this is something new that I am teaching you.” Nicodemus’s confusion was not coming from a lack of revelation of the will of God. Rather, Christ points Nicodemus back to the Scriptures: “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (v.10). Christ is referring here to the promises given in the prophecy of Ezekiel.
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. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Christ is teaching how it is that man comes into kingdom of God. It is by a complete change in his heart, a complete change in his nature. The whole of man was deprived in the fall and the whole of man is renewed in his restoration to the Father. Conformed to the likeness of the Son, man is made new through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What is meant by Kingdom of God?
It is common to believe that Kingdom of God refers to heaven or to the last things, so that here is meant that one must be born again to be a part of the New Heavens and the New Earth. However, we see elsewhere that Christ exhorts men and women to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15). What is more likely meant here is the entry into life and communion with God. Calvin comments:
But they are mistaken who suppose that the kingdom of God means Heaven; for it rather means the spiritual life, which is begun by faith in this world, and gradually increases every day according to the continued progress of faith. – Calvin, Commentary on John 3
Born of Water and the Spirit
In his commentary on verse 5, Calvin gives a succinct and interesting summary of interpretations on this verse. Some, following John Chrysostom, have seen water as a reference to baptism. They concluded from this that baptism regenerates man; from this, we have the opinion of Rome on the subject of baptismal regeneration.
Calvin does not deny that there is a reference here to water baptism. However, he states that it more likely that water here is used as an outward visible sign of what Christ has been describing throughout this passage: new life in the Spirit. Many times the Spirit is referenced along with fire and also with water. Thus, it would seem that the words mean one and the same thing. The Spirit comes to cleanse us as by water.
By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit. Besides, it is not unusual to employ the word and instead of that is, when the latter clause is intended to explain the former. And the view which I have taken is supported by what follows; for when Christ immediately proceeds to assign the reason why we must be born again, without mentioning the water, he shows that the newness of life which he requires is produced by the Spirit alone; whence it follows, that water must not be separated from the Spirit
Baptism is the outward, visible sign of regeneration, a regeneration which only the Spirit can give, not the ordinary element of water in baptism.
How is it that we are born again? By the Spirit. But if not by baptism especially, than by what? The answer to that question comes to us from Scripture. It is by the Word of God.
Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)
Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. (1 Pet. 1:23)
The word is the means by which God calls men to himself, makes them new, proclaims the Son and unites us to Him. As you go out today to hear the Word proclaimed, remember this gift of Grace, that God has revealed Himself and given us a means by which to know Him.