What Does “Water” Mean in John 3:5?

In my previous writing, Be Baptized to Be Saved, I quoted John 3:5 as one of the verses that proves we must be baptized to be saved. In this verse Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question of how one can be born again by saying, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

I almost did not include this verse as proof in my writing because I know there are some people that do not hold the view that the water mentioned in the verse means baptism. Instead, they say that it refers to the amniotic fluid from your physical birth when you first enter the world — that born of water is a reference to our physical birth. Obviously, I do not hold the this view and since I believe I have sufficient evidence from previous studies to back up my claim that Jesus is referring to water baptism, I chose to include it in my list.

However, it is always good to revisit and study a prior conclusion especially when someone you respect questions your interpretation. I hope I am always humble enough to do that no matter how many times I’ve studied a topic.

I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to better understand this verse and have sought different resources on it. And while my conclusion has not changed, something occurred to me through this process. The whole reason why I almost did not include this verse in my original writing was that it is not needed to show that baptism is commanded by God to be saved.

Let’s say I am wrong with my interpretation and the use of the word water is a reference to the amniotic fluid in a natural birth. Would my error in interpreting John 3:5 change the meaning of 1 Peter 3:21 when Peter blatantly says, “There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism”?

Would it change Jesus’ words in Mark 16:16 when He commands, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned”?

Would it change all the examples we have in the book of Acts of people carrying out the command of Jesus by believing and being baptized to be saved?

Would it change any other verses that say baptism is for the remission of sins as in Acts 2:38 or others that say that baptism is your death, burial, and resurrection with Christ to free you from sin as in Romans 6:3-7?

I don’t ask these questions to sound condescending to anyone who believes differently, but to show that the claim that one must be baptized to be saved is not dependent on John 3:5. God has given us so much evidence from different angles on this matter and maybe the reason for that could be because He wanted to make the necessity of baptism, along with everything else He commands to be saved, abundantly clear.

Yet, as not to leave my readers utterly disappointed from not addressing the question in the title of this post, I will give my 3 main reasons for why I have concluded that the word “water” in John 3:5 refers to water baptism.

1. Context

There was something very significant going on at the time Nicodemus came to Jesus by night — John’s baptism. If you go to John 1:19-28, you will read about a conversation between John and some priests and Levites where John makes it clear that he was not the Christ but came to “make straight the way for the Lord.” How was John doing that? By baptizing in water, and it’s very apparent these priests and Levites knew about this because they asked John why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the Christ. Seems to me these religious leaders knew there was something spiritual and significant about being baptized in water. So, when we get to the story of Nicodemus in John 3, it makes more sense to me to conclude that Jesus is using the word water to represent baptism as Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, would have most likely been familiar with this representation since it was the Pharisees who sent the questioners of John in John 1:19-28. I also find it compelling that right after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the Holy Spirit saw fit to make known that Jesus, His disciples, and John were out baptizing people (John 3:22-23). Even the first verse in John 4 starts with the Pharisees recognizing Jesus’ success by “making and baptizing more disciples than John.” With proofs such as these, there is no denying that Nicodemus would have most likely made the connection of the word water to mean baptism.

2. Supportive Scriptures

I have already mentioned some supportive scriptures in relation to the context of John’s baptism being a good indicator that water means baptism and other scriptures in support that baptism is necessary to enter the kingdom of God because it saves, is commanded by Jesus, and is for the remission of sins, so I won’t repeat that here. What I do want to add is a verse I believe parallels what Jesus is saying in John 3:5. In Titus 3:5, Paul writes:

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,”

There is a washing going on in baptism. This is not a washing like a bath where you are trying to get your body clean as explained in 1 Peter 3:21, but a spiritual washing where your soul is regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t that sound like someone is being born again? More specifically, being born of water and the Spirit? And don’t we all understand that being born again is a necessity to enter the kingdom of God? The pattern throughout the New Testament is that water baptism is part of the renewing process of the Holy Spirit. Since this immersion in water must be present for the Holy Spirit to do His work through baptism, it’s no surprise that Jesus would tell Nicodemus one must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.

3. Early Christian Writings

In the book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, a man named David Bercot, who has done extensive reading and study of early Christian writings, addresses in Chapter 8 (pgs. 77-82) what he believes was his own mistake in understanding what water meant in John 3:5 when he “discovered that the early Christians universally understood Jesus’ words to refer to water baptism.” Here are some direct quotes of prominent writers and leaders in the early churches from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs compiled by David Bercot:

Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp who was a direct student of the Apostle John, writes, “We are spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, just as the Lord declares: ‘Unless a man is born again through water and the Spirit, he will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. ‘ “ pg. 52

Tertullian, an apologist in the early church, writes, “ ‘Unless a man has been born again of water and Spirit, he will not enter into the kingdom of the heavens.’ These words have tied faith to the necessity of baptism. Accordingly, all thereafter who became believers were baptized. So it was, too, that Paul, when he believed, was baptized.” pg. 53

Cyprian, an overseer of one of the early churches, writes, “Unless man has been baptized and born again, he cannot attain unto the kingdom of God. In the Gospel according to John: ‘Unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ “ pg. 55

Justin Martyr, an evangelist in the early church who was martyred because he refused to denounce Christ, writes, “They are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were regenerated ourselves. They there receive the washing with water in the name of God (the Father and the Lord of the universe), of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ also said, ‘Unless you are born again, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ “ pg. 56

While these men are certainly not inspired writers of scripture, they do have an advantage over us in the sense of interpreting the inspired writings of scripture by being closer to the direct sources and teachers that gave us God’s infallible word. No, their writings are not the authority, but they were part of the biggest movement that established Christianity and the first churches and it can be very valuable to use their writings as an outside resource to understand how the early Christians would have understood various teachings and carried them out. From what I have quoted here from these prominent leaders in the early church, I conclude that the early Christians understood the “water” in John 3:5 to mean water baptism, and since that aligns with the context of what was happening at that time and what the rest of scripture teaches about baptism and it’s necessity for salvation, I don’t see a reason to conclude otherwise.

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