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In this week’s post, I continue looking at John 3:5 and the question; does “born of water” refer to water baptism?  I have yet to be convinced it does because I cannot find anything that suggests water baptism being performed by John would have occurred to Nicodemus in answer to Jesus’ words.  I had hoped I would find an easy answer in the Old Testament thinking that the phrase “born of water” might have been used somewhere and so I looked through my lexicons looking for said phrase.

I couldn’t find it.  I do admit I might have missed it: to be thorough I looked up “born” and, since James 1:18 in the King James Version uses “begat” rather than “birthed” or “born”, I looked up “begat” as well.  There was a great deal of begetting in the Old Testament.  Knowing I may not have read the scripture lists with as detailed an eye as I ought, I went to Google.  The search engine was not able to return a single instance of the phrase “born of water” in the Old Testament.  Just for fun, I looked up “water” and encountered many phrases I’d like to take a look at another time (what does it mean to drink the water of iniquity?) but found nothing that suggested someone intimate with the Old Testament scriptures like Nicodemus would associate the water baptism of John with being born anew/born of water and spirit. 

What was the baptism of John?  Mark 1:4 tells me it was a baptism to the repentance of sins.  I want to take a look at the word repentance because it doesn’t mean in this passage what general usage says it means.  My New World Dictionary defines repentance as “a repenting or being penitent; feeling of sorrow, etc., esp. for wrongdoing; compunction; contrition, remorse.”  Repent is further defined as “to feel sorry or self-reproachful for what one has done or failed to do, be conscious-stricken or contrite, to feel such regret…as to change one’s mind about…”  Repentance is made up of the Latin “re-again” and “poenitere-penitent.”1

There is a word for this in the New Testament: metamellomai (G3338).  It is the word used in Matthew 27:3 where Judas “repented” and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders.  It is a word that expresses “a desire that an action might be undone, express regrets, or even remorse, but does not imply an effective change of heart”2.

I am careful whenever I find someone using the word repentance.  It’s critical to understand what is being said.  Is repentance being used to mean “to be afflicted in mind”, “to be troubled for our former folly”…”a being displeased for what we have done”?Is repentance being used to mean performing penance over and over again?  If so, then it is not the same repentance used in accordance with the baptism of John.  The Greek word used there is metanoia (G3341) and “where there was a difference made (in meaning), metanoia was the better word, which does not properly signify the sorrow for having done amiss, but something that is nobler than it…metanoia and its verb refer to a true change of heart toward god.”4

I found an article online that said that baptism was used for ritual cleansing of Gentile proselytes and that John applied it to the Jews themselves: all needed to have a true heart change toward God.  No wonder that the Pharisees refused to step into the water! (See Mathew 3:5-9).  And, this is why I am convinced that Jesus never meant baptism when he spoke to Nicodemus about being born of water and spirit.  I doubt that it ever would have occurred to Nicodemus-religious leader and teacher of Israel-that he needed to have a change of heart toward God.  

I must also take into consideration the fact that Jesus could not have meant water baptism because John’s baptism was a forerunner to what did not yet exist.  Christian baptism is the physical demonstration of the identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and has a much deeper significance than the baptism of John (See Acts 18:24-26, 19:1-5).  I cannot agree with Dr. Vincent when he says “Jesus’ words included a prophetic reference to the complete ideal of Christian baptism”5.

Yet I do agree Jesus clearly expected Nicodemus to know what He meant.  Nicodemus’ place among the upper echelons of the Pharisees meant he could not be in ignorance of all that had happened in recent years.  Consider first the coming of the wise men as related in Chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel.  Their appearance troubled Herod the king and all Jerusalem (verse 3) and Herod had to call the chief priests and scribes to him to inquire where the Christ was to be born (verse 4).  Here’s a thing that blows my mind: the priests and scribes are called into the presence of the king to answer the wise men, they quote the prophet Micah, and then what…go their way?  No one seemed the least bit curious.  Selah!  (pause, and calmly think of that!)  Then comes the devastating slaughter of the children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18, Jeremiah 31: 15).  Then there is John the baptizer.  He quotes Isaiah and declares he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23, Isaiah 40:3). 

I wonder if Jesus expected one so familiar with the prophets and not ignorant of what had been happening in the region, to recognize who he was meeting at night.  I wonder if that is what Jesus meant when he asked, “are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things?”  I wonder if when Jesus said “you must be born of water” he wasn’t thinking of His own words to Jeremiah when He called Himself the “fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13, 17: 13) and of his words to Ezekiel when He promised a new heart and His own Spirit. 

“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13)

To be continued…

1.  Guralnik, David B. Editor in Chief, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Cleveland * New York, William Collins + World Publishing Co., Inc., 1976

2. New Koine Greek Textbook Series Supplements, 2nd Edition, Richard Chenevix Trench’s Synonyms, Repent, 2018, 145-146

3. New Koine Greek Textbook Series Supplements, 2nd Edition, Richard Chenevix Trench’s Synonyms, Repent, 2018, 145-146

4. New Koine Greek Textbook Series Supplements, 2nd Edition, Richard Chenevix Trench’s Synonyms, Repent, 2018, 145-146

5.  Vincent, Marvin R., D.D., Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament Volume II, Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, Gospel of John Chapter 3:5. Born of Water and the Spirit, Page 92

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