How are people born again? This question was prompted when Jesus made a mysterious comment to a Pharisee named Nicodemus:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
When Nicodemus expressed his confusion, Jesus gave what might seem like an even more cryptic reply:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
In response to Nicodemus’s further confusion, Jesus chides him: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). Why would Jesus expect Nicodemus to understand such an odd phrase? Was Jesus being unfair?
Indeed, what could Jesus expect “the teacher of Israel” to know? It seems legitimate to expect that he would have at least been familiar with the Old Testament, and interestingly, “water” (mayim) and “spirit” (ruach) show up together more than once in the Old Testament (note that the Hebrew word “ruach” can be translated as either “spirit,” “the Spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” – as can its Greek equivalent: “pneuma“). It seems, then, that a survey of thse occurrences might be the key to interpreting Jesus’ words.
The Earth is “Born”
The first time we see water and spirit/breath/wind together in the Old Testament is at God’s creation of the Earth:
“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Gen 1:2)
The Earth is “Born Again”
The second time we see water and spirit/breath/wind together in the Old Testament is at God’s re-creation of the Earth after the great flood:
“And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. . . . And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.” (Ge. 8:2-11)
Israel is “Born”
The third time we see water and spirit/breath/wind together in the Old Testament is at God’s creation of the nation of Israel at the Red Sea:
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” (Exodus 14:21-22)
Israel is “Born Again”
The fourth time we see water and spirit/breath/wind together in the Old Testament is at God’s re-creation of the nation of Israel, pictured as dry (waterless?) bones being revived by God’s breath:
“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 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. . . . The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley;it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. . . . Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord. . . . Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’ . . . Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.'” (Ezekiel 36:24-26, 37:1-11)
This language is also associated with the New Covenant (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31-34), which is explicated in the New Testament – as well as several of the above passages concerning the birth and rebirth of God’s creations. Now, Nicodemus probably had not been instructed in the ways of the New Covenant yet – at least as it pertained to Jesus’ ministry. However, Nicodemus still might have caught wind (pun intended) of the water/spirit parallels.
The first time we see water and spirit/breath/wind together in the New Testament is in the description of Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his ministry which is described using the same words as the creation and re-creation of the Earth:
“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16)
The apostle John connects the elements of water/baptism and spirit/breath/wind with Jesus’ saving ministry spanning from his baptism (water) to his death (blood):
“This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. . . . And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:6-12)
The apostle Paul also connects water/baptism with spirit/breath/wind with Jesus’ saving ministry:
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)
Whereas it is debatable whether “washing of regeneration” refers to baptism in the above passage, the apostle Peter’s connection of water/baptism with spirit/breath/wind to Jesus’ saving ministry is clear:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
We find further connections between water/baptism and spirit/breath/wind in both Paul and Peter when they explain some of the above-mentioned Old Testament water and spirit/breath/wind connections – referring to them as baptisms.
Peter on Earth’s Birth and Re-Birth
In the New Testament, Peter describes God’s creation by water and the re-creation of the Earth by the flood, then he links the salvation of Noah’s family during the flood to baptism:
“the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. . . . the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.” (2 Peter 3:5-6; 1 Peter 3:20)
Paul on Israel’s Birth
In the New Testament, Paul describes God’s creation of the nation of Israel at the Red Sea as a baptism:
“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:1-2)
Jesus seemed to expect that Nicodemus should have caught on to his “water and spirit” Old Testament references. Given the likelihood that Nicodemus also knew something of the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:5), perhaps Jesus was justified in expecting him to catch on after all. (Of course, Jesus often seemed to expect his disciples to pick up on things faster than they did!).
As described by the Bible, God’s creation (or re-creation) involves “water and spirit” – what the New Testament authors identify as baptism. Baptism is how one enters the body of Christ and gains the hope of resurrection:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
The Apostle Peter puts it plainly:
“baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21)
Baptism is the new birth – God’s new creation by water and Spirit. An understanding foreshadowed in the Old Testament,* revealed in the New Covenant, and reflecting the consistent testimony of the early Church.
*Note: Although he disagrees with this conclusion, I am in debt to Professor Thomas Howe for being the first to point out many of these connections to me (and for teaching me the majority of my limited knowledge of Hebrew and Greek!).