Willis: Baptism – John 3

So, the series continues with the next part of my Thesis breaking down John 3. This part is actually one of my longer examinations on any series of verses in my original Thesis. As with Romans, I could have devoted even more work on these verses. I encourage readers to really chew on the material presented here. Also, be sure to read the brief addendum on Chrysostom provided at the end of this article.

John 3:3-5

We turn our attention to the text that many assume to be the first mention of Christian Baptism chronologically in the ministry and teaching of Jesus prior to His death and resurrection. This is found in the text of John 3:5. For broader context, however, we will look at the verses before John 3:5 and after. What does this text reveal to us concerning Baptism? One may even question if this verse is indeed even about Baptism. In order to best understand it, we look to the Greek text, which is written in the following way:

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ Θεοῦ. λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ Νικόδημος Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι; ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.1

To even begin exegeting this verse, we must first determine—for our purposes—if the verse is even talking about Baptism, specifically water Baptism. Is the word ὕδατος talking about actual water or is it a reference to amniotic fluid,2 or perhaps even a symbolic term? Well, of first importance, is the word used in the text itself, that being ὕδατος, of ὕδωρ. The word itself actually has many references in the Bible. Very few of these, within context, are taken to mean anything other than water, as in the element itself. The majority of occurrences within the New Testament are direct references to water, as the element, and as literal life giving water, of which all humans must consume to live.3

Within the context of John 3:5, there is nothing which would suggest that we take ὕδατος as to mean anything other than what it is, that being water, not a symbolic substance. Likewise, it would not only lack contextual basis, but it also would make little sense that Jesus would be speaking of amniotic fluid, as that was the very thing Nicodemus was indicating in asking his question to Jesus concerning γεννηθῆναι and entering ones mother’s κοιλίαν a second time. Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus to think beyond simple natural birth, not refer to the exact error that Nicodemus was making.4 As D.A. Carson writes:

water” has been understood to refer to amniotic fluid… But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as “from water”…It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way… but none is tied quite so clearly to… amniotic fluid as to make the connection here…”5

We can thus conclude that the water in question is thus a reference to real, actual water.

It makes even more sense that this water was real, actual water when one considers who Nicodemus was: a Pharisee. These men were already accustomed to water in reference to religious ceremony and religious rites.6 Nicodemus should have been accustomed to John the Baptist’s baptism.7 Nicodemus was also likely familiar with Jewish proselyte baptism,8 a ritual where water was applied to a Gentile converting to Judaism,9 and even where in the waters they were considered to be risen from the dead and given new life.10 It can also be assumed that Nicodemus had great knowledge of Ezekiel 36:25, Psalm 51:2, and Zechariah 13:1. All of these verses speak of God cleansing His people with water. The cleansing of Naaman, as found in 2 Kings 5:1-14, takes place in the Jordan, with the application of real water through which God works and keeps His word to cleanse Naaman. Nicodemus should have known of the history of Naaman as he knew of the rest of the Scriptures of his time. So, when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of a birth from above containing water—doing great things—was not an entirely foreign idea.

The idea that Jesus is speaking of water beyond amniotic fluid is reinforced when Jesus speaks of γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, which is birth from above. This birth, which includes both ὕδατος and πνεύματος, is not one of a woman. Rather, it is ἄνωθεν. ἄνωθεν does not simply refer to temporal distance or physical aspects (though it can, e.g. John 19:23), but rather within context, refers to that which is above worldly things, that being heaven, which in turn means from God.11 It is thus concluded that this birth is not a natural birth of man, but rather a birth that comes from God Himself. To clarify, context is always key. As noted, ἄνωθεν can refer to actual distance between one point and another. John 19:23 was given as an example. Matthew 27:51 and Mark 15:28 also stand as primary examples. However, given the specific context in John 3, it would be almost laughable to conclude that Jesus was using the word in the sense of spacial distance between one point and another. Thus, the use of ἄνωθεν must instead refer to that which is above, which is God.12

When Jesus spoke of the πνεύματος, Nicodemus, knowing of the teachings of John the Baptist, should have connected this to John’s words when he declared that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16). So, Nicodemus having heard Jesus’ teaching on the birth from above being of water and Spirit, he should have understood this to be that Baptism which John had already promised Jesus would bring to the world.13 Additionally, John’s baptism was said to have been a βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν,14 that being a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Nicodemus should have understood John’s baptism to, in theory, be a means of entrance to the Kingdom of God, then how much more would this Baptism, which Jesus was teaching Nicodemus about, be a means in which one entered the Kingdom of God? Much more indeed, for John’s baptism was not a birth from above, but this new Baptism of which Jesus spoke was indeed that.

Much of the above is a rejection of the idea that Jesus’ teachings would not have been understood by Nicodemus had Jesus been speaking of a Baptism that was to come, that would be instituted after His resurrection (Matthew 28:19). An example of this thinking is from Leon Morris who writes, “It is difficult to think that Jesus would have spoken in such a way that his meaning could not possibly been grasped.”15 Also, from John Peter Lang, quoting John Calvin, writing concerning these verses in connection to Christian Baptism, “The words would then have been unintelligible, because the baptism of Christ had not yet begun.”16 The correct rebuttal to these positions is found in the arguments above, which make clear that Nicodemus was already familiar with applications of water working miracles (2 Kings 5:1-14), bringing about the cleansing of God’s people (Ezekiel 36:25; Psalm 51:2; Zechariah 13:1), being said to bring about repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3), and should have known of the use of baptism for the conversion of Gentiles into Judaism, wherein the Gentile is given new life and placed into holiness.17 But this is not the only rebuttal to this position. Assuming that Nicodemus continued not to understand Jesus’ teachings, even after Jesus explained it more in depth, we find a rebuttal in the words of Jesus Himself, as seen in the text of Matthew 13:11-13:

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the  kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.18

Here, Jesus makes it clear that those outside of the kingdom will not understand the things He has to say because they have not been given the ability to understand His teaching. Nicodemus, being a Pharisee, an opponent of both John and Jesus’ ministries, would not have been those who are likely to have been given the ability to understand His teaching. So, it should come to no surprise that Nicodemus does not fully understand Jesus’ teaching. He may have had some insight concerning context, but ultimately his lack of understanding was not because Jesus was not being clear, but because his mind was kept from understanding, along with many others (Isaiah 6:9-10; John 12:37-40). Lenski notes something interesting in this regard, writing, “The fact that Jesus… postpones the very possibility of new birth for Nicodemus (and for all men) into the indefinite future, when he and others may already have been overtaken by death, is also left unsaid.”19

This is to say that Jesus keeping the true meaning and secret of His teaching concerning birth from Nicodemus and others to the point that Nicodemus and others go to their graves having not understood it, is perhaps exactly what took place. Or perhaps it is not. We are not told if Nicodemus truly understood what Jesus was teaching him; we are left to wonder at the end result. Anything else is conjecture. What is important is that we as Christians understand what Jesus is teaching here in these verses, not if Nicodemus could have understood what was being taught.

Another important distinction concerning the Greek is expressed when one looks at ὕδατος and πνεύματος via the καὶ in reference to connection. While Craig Keener is correct when he writes, “…the grammar suggests a close connection between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’… ‘a conceptual unity of some sort…”20 he misses the mark when he writes that the “καὶ likely functions epexegetically, hence water, i.e. the Spirit.”21 that is to say that the water and the Spirit are the same one thing. The καὶ here is not functioning in a way in which the two are seen as one thing, but rather that they are connected together in the γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν. As Lang writes, “The term ὕδωρ… is closely related to, and yet clearly distinguished from πνεῦμα…”22 Lenski further clarifies the issue, saying:

The Exegesis which separates ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, as though Jesus said ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ ἐκ πνεύματος, is not based on linguistic grounds; for the one preposition has as its one object the concept “water and spirit,” which describes Baptism, its earthly element and divine agency. The absence of the Greek articles with the two nouns makes their unity more apparent.23

This is all to say that though it is true that the water and the Spirit are joined together in unity, they are also separate elements within the act of Baptism.

Das brings up an another argument concerning the verse(s) in question, and manages to go beyond the Greek and into thematic context.24 Das structures his argument according to the verses and events surrounding the discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus. Das notes that after His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus and His disciples went and baptized (John 3:22).25 It can be concluded from this immediate context that the water Jesus was speaking about was truly water, an eventual part of what would be Christian Baptism.26 As part of his argument, Das notes that the verses of John 3:22-30 are placed in an odd order, as it would be more thematically correct to have these verses take place around John 1:19-34 and John 2:1-11.27 He explains this is not an accident, but rather it is done intentionally as to connect what is said in John 3:1-21 directly to the strong Baptismal content found in 3:22-30 & 4:1-2.28 By connecting these together in this way, the Baptismal theme is strengthened, and 3:22-4:2 provide explanatory content and context, through which one is able to understand what is taught to Nicodemus in 3:1-8, i.e. Baptism.29

Before the discussion of John 3:5 is concluded, there is one more issue to discuss. This issue is exemplified with the use of ὕδατος in John 4:14 compared to the use of the word in John 3:5. It can be said of these verses that given the context that ὕδωρ is symbolic. First, this can very well be true, as there is no reason to assume that ὕδωρ can never actually be used in a symbolic manner. As said before, the context in these verses can suggest a symbolic use of the word. If this is so, can it then call into question what was concluded above concerning the word ὕδωρ? No, because the context is different. Even if it was granted that these verses were conclusively using the word in a symbolic manner, that does not mean we change the use and meaning of the word in John 3:5. Given everything said above concerning the context and Greek of John 3:5, there is no need to assume the meaning is anything other than what has been concluded above.

But let it be assumed that the verses are not using ὕδωρ in a conclusively symbolic fashion. What are the verses saying? Here is the text of John 4:14:

ὃς δ’ ἂν πίῃ ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος οὗ ἐγὼ δώσω αὐτῷ, οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ἀλλὰ τὸ ὕδωρ ὃ δώσω αὐτῷ γενήσεται ἐν αὐτῷ πηγὴ ὕδατος ἁλλομένου εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

Jesus, speaking to the woman of Samaria, tells her that He will give (δώσω) water (ὕδατος), which will bring a true and permanent quenching of the thirst (οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα). And that this water will become a spring (πηγὴ ὕδατος), and that this will bring about eternal life (ζωὴν αἰώνιον).30 But what is this water? Is it symbolic water that Jesus will bring in some mysterious fashion? No, it is real water given to people by Christ, which gives eternal life. Nothing specifically in the context or in the Greek suggests that this water is actually anything other than a special water which Christ will deliver. Again, this dialogue with the woman at the well takes place shortly after the dialogue with Nicodemus. This was intentional, as John wants the reader to keep in mind everything that was said previously to Nicodemus when reading what Jesus says to the woman at the well.

It is interesting to note that Jesus never fully states how this water will be delivered. When the woman in the next verse asks for Jesus to give her this water, He instead exposes her sins, which in turn is a call to repentance.31 Where else do we see a call to repent connected to the reception of Baptism? Answer: Acts 2:38 (which is discussed in depth below), where Peter calls upon the people to repent and be baptized. As has been identified above, Baptism applies to the baptized individual that which is greatest of all, that being Christ. In the water of Baptism, Christ is applied to the believer, and receiving Christ in this way brings about eternal life. Baptism, which is not man’s work, but God’s work, is given to the believer. So, when Jesus speaks to this woman of bringing to the people a water which brings about eternal life, we can infer that this water is the very same water that brings Himself. This same water is that which Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus.

It can be concluded that John 3:5 is indeed about water Baptism, and that this Baptism is the same Christian Baptism that Christ commanded in Matthew 28:19. This Baptism is from above, being given by God, with water and the Spirit, where one finds new birth and new life.

1 Nestle and Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 253.

2‘Water’ refers to the amniotic fluid of the womb…” Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), Kindle Cloud Reader Location 1844. Bauckham’s point is that Jesus uses the term water to refer to amniotic fluid in order to connect with Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of birth. Bauckham writes following this statement: “Nicodemus’s mistake is to think that Jesus is speaking of another birth of the same kind as the first. So Jesus clarifies: ‘To enter the kingdom of God, one must be born not from the womb-water of a human mother, but from the womb-water that is Spirit.'” and he then concludes “This proposal gives ‘water’ a precise function in connecting 3:4 and 3:5 and so explains why it occurs only at this point in Jesus’s exposition of new birth.”Earlier in his work Bauckham also wrote “References to the amniotic fluid as “water” are not easily adduced…but the release of watery fluid from the womb in childbirth is an obvious feature of the process of birth and so recognizing a reference to it here does not really need textual support…In its favor is that the reference to water in 3:5 follows immediately Nicodemus’s reference to birth from “his mother’s womb” in 3:4.” Ibid 1802.

3 Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 1023-1024.

4 Craig S. Keener, Gospel of John: A Commentary. Volume I. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003) 547-548.

5 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), Kindle Cloud Reader Location 3641.

6 Das, Baptized into God’s Family, 8.

7 Keener, John, 548. Also see Das, Baptized into God’s Family, 8.

8 Ibid.

9 Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism In The First Four Centuries (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1962), 31. Also see Das, Baptized into God’s Family, 8.

10 Jeremias, Infant, 33; 36.

11 Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 92.

12 This is because ἄνωθεν served as (and in a sense still does serve as) a colloquial for God; Him being that which is above all things in existence.

13 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1942) 237-238.

14 Mark 1:4.

15 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995) 193.

16 John Peter Lang, Philip Schaff eds., The Gospel According to John (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Son’s, 1915) 127.

17 Jeremias, Infant Baptism, 36.

18 Also see Mark 4:10-13.

19 Lenski, St. John’s Gospel, 237.

20 Keener, John, 551.

21 Ibid, 550.

22 Lang, John, 126. It is important to note that Lang goes on to say, “and in such connection always refers to baptismal water.” This is helpful in understanding that once again, the verse in question refers to Christian Baptism. However, Lang does go on to state that in his opinion, Baptism is symbolic and represents an already occurring change.

23 Lenski, St. John’s, 237.

24 Das, Baptized into God’s Family, 8-11.

25 Ibid, 8.

26 Ibid. I agree with Das that this makes it all the more clear in that Jesus was speaking of water Baptism.

27 Ibid, 8-9.

28 Ibid, 9.

29 Das, Baptized into God’s Family, 9.

30 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943) 310.

31 Lenski, Interpretation (1943), 314-317.

Brief Addendum: Chrysostom and John 3

Did the Church Fathers see this text as referring to actual water? Are the conclusions written above agreed upon by the church fathers? Not many of the church fathers write specifically on this matter. One that does, however, is John Chrysostom. In his commentary on John 3:5, Chrysostom writes, “…as in the beginning earth was the subject material… so also now water is the subject material, and the whole is of grace of the Spirit”1 This is to say that God used earth to create man, how much more can God use water to create new life.2 Chrysostom continues, “What then is the use of the water? …or the present I will mention to you one out of many. What is this one? In Baptism are fulfilled the pledges of our covenant with God; burial and death, resurrection and life; and these take place all at once.” Here, Chrysostom connects the water in John 3:5 to Christian Baptism, but even more than that, connects this Baptism to the same Baptism as found in Romans 6:1-11. Here, we find Chrysostom in agreement with the conclusions I have previously written about concerning John 3.3

1 Kevin Knight, reviser and eds., “Homily 25 on the Gospel of John.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1889). http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/240125.htm. Accessed April 20th, 2017.

2 Chrysostom explains this occurs because of the Spirit along with the water. By the Spirit in the water, new life is given to others. This is to clarify that it is not only the water alone apart from the Spirit.

3 In fact, the vast majority of Church Fathers connect John 3:5 to Baptism. Though many lack specific commentaries on John’s Gospel proper, a majority of them quote from John 3:5 when writing about Baptism. An example of this can be seen here: “”Born Again in Baptism” https://www.catholic.com, August 10, 2004, https://www.catholic.com/tract/born-again-in-baptism (Accessed April 20th, 2017).

Also see “Regenerative & Necessary Baptism” http://www.catholicbasictraining.com, http://www.catholicbasictraining.com/apologetics/coursetexts/cf6m.htm (Accessed April 20th, 2017).


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