John 3:3-5 (NKJV)
Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God
Some contend that when Jesus said we must be born of the water to enter the kingdom, He was actually speaking of the natural birth in contrast to the spiritual birth. Is this what Jesus meant? Can we be born of water without being baptized?
1. The common sense test: Raise your hand if you have ever used this phrase to ask someone’s date of birth: “When were you born of water?” I don't see any hands up, and it isn’t just because I don’t have access to your web cam. (Or do I? Cue creepy music.) Even if I could see you, all hands would be down. Why? Because nobody speaks this way. Nobody does now. Nobody did then. The scripture didn’t. There was no reason for Jesus to.
If Jesus was trying to clear up what He meant when He said you must be born again, it seems that this would be a poor way to do it. Hypothetically, if you had never read the Bible and somebody mentioned being born of water, would you have any idea what they were talking about? Would you roll your eyes like they were crazy? The nearly unanimous response would be, “Huh?” If your clarifying statement leaves people asking, “What?” then you failed to clarify.
Since His purpose was to explain His previous statement, Jesus would have been speaking in a manner that Nicodemus could easily understand. While the imagery is apparent upon reflection, there is no precedent for describing natural birth as being born of the water and no way for Nicodemus to ascertain that this was Christ's intended meaning so it seems highly unlikely that Christ had natural birth in mind.
2. The context: The Pharisees were stirred up because John the Baptist was baptizing for the remission of sins. Unfortunately for them, this was God’s message, not just John’s. Jesus was even baptized so that He could “fulfill all righteousness.”
The Pharisees adamantly refused. They got in verbal sparring matches with The Baptist. Luke stated the following concerning the Pharisee’s rejection of John.
Luke 7:30 (NKJV)
30 But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
What does this have to do with Nicodemus and his question? Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Can you reject and oppose God’s will for you and still be saved? Is it a stretch for Jesus to tell a Pharisee that he had to be born of water to be saved?
Also, how would Nicodemus understand the phrase, “born of water” in conjunction with the phrase, “kingdom of God?”
Matthew 3 (NKJV)
3 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”… 5 Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him 6 and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
Baptism and the coming kingdom of God were John’s message. In the religious climate of that day, Nicodemus immediately would have taken Jesus’ mention of being born of water for entrance into the kingdom of God as affirmation of the necessity of baptism.
Furthermore, Jesus acted on what He said. Immediately after telling Nicodemus that being born again by water was essential to enter the kingdom, Jesus started baptizing. (Really, He did. You just don’t hear about it. I don’t know why.)
John 3:22, 26 (NKJV)
22 After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized…26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”
3. This pattern of baptism in water and Spirit is cited throughout the New Testament. Multiple verses show the baptisms working together to justify, sanctify, and save men. Here is a list of some of them: Baptized in Water and Spirit.
4. The message of baptism being an essential act of saving faith and thus necessary to enter the kingdom is repeated in scripture.
Mark 16:16 (NKJV)
16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved…
1 Peter 3:21 (KJV)
21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save…
5. The idea that after baptism we receive new life (born again of water) was also repeated.
4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
6. Paul’s writing describing God’s saving mercy parallels Jesus’ words to Nicodemus perfectly.
Titus 3:5 (NKJV)
5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,
In case you missed the significance of regeneration, here is the NIV rendering:
Titus 3:5 (NIV)
5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit
John 3:5 = Titus 3:5
enter the kingdom = He saved us
born again of water = washing of rebirth
born again of Spirit = renewal (translated as "new life" in the NLT) by the Holy Spirit
In conclusion, I don’t believe that Jesus was telling Nicodemus that we must be born naturally (born of water) and then supernaturally of the Spirit to enter the kingdom. It is safe to assume that Nicodemus as well as everyone that would ever hear John’s gospel had already been born naturally. Instead, I believe after applying reason, examining the context of John 3, and studying correlative passages on baptism that the message Jesus was trying to convey is very clear. Being born again consists of two elements, both a birth in water and a birth in Spirit. We must be buried in water to rise in new life. Have you been born of the water? Have you been baptized?
For more information of baptism: Understanding Baptism
For a very brief summary of God’s commands concerning baptism: Baptism - Short and Sweet
For more information on baptism in Jesus' name: Baptized in the name,
For more information on re-baptism: Should I be re-baptized?