Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is one of the most well known sections of the entire Bible. His statement in John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous verse in Scripture, but John 3:3 and 3:5 are also well known, seen on numerous billboards across the country. Christ’s command that we must be “born again” in order to see God’s kingdom is very revealing, especially when one recognizes its figurative nature (v. 3). Nicodemus didn’t; thinking that Jesus was speaking literally, he asked how a man could enter his mother’s womb a second time (v. 4). Jesus clarified by telling him that one could not enter God’s kingdom unless they were “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5).
Christ’s reference to water is a clear allusion to baptism. Baptism – literally immersion, and specifically immersion in water (John 3:23; Acts 8:36-39; 10:47-48; cf. Tit. 3:5; Eph. 5:25-26) – is required for salvation (Mark 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21) and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). It is also required for entrance into Christ (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27), specifically into his body (1 Cor. 12:13), which is his church (Col. 1:18). Since Christ’s church is the kingdom (Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:4, 6, 9), we see why Jesus would require being “born of water” before entering his kingdom.
His mention of water “and the Spirit” is a reference to the Holy Spirit, specifically the Spirit’s participation in the work of saving us from our sins. We have the gospel which saves us (Rom. 1:16) through the writings of men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Thus, the Word of God which saves our souls (James 1:21) is basically the voice of the Spirit, an allusion Jesus makes in verse 8. “The wind” in that verse would be better translated “the Spirit,” and “blows” would be better translated as “breathes.” Thus, Jesus is literally saying in verse 8, “The Spirit breathes where he wishes…”, and is referring to the voice of the Holy Spirit as conveyed through the Scriptures.
It is through the voice of the Spirit as shown through the Scriptures that we learn of our need and duty to be “born again.” If we believe God’s Word, we will respond by submitting to immersion in water and thereby enter the kingdom of God, the church of Christ. After our baptism, we are a new creation due to our repentance of our sins (2 Cor. 5:17; Acts 3:19); we are new people, different from our former selves. We will be truly “born again” through the power and message of the Holy Spirit, God’s Word (John 3:3, 6; cf. 2 Pet. 1:20-21; James 1:21).
We’re often worried about how we look on the outside. We look at how we dress, our hygiene, how our hair is styled. We are also concerned with how people think of us. We want them to believe we are a moral, upright person…even if deep down we aren’t. Our Creator knows that we are this way, and warned us about it (Luke 11:37-41; Matt. 23:25-28). The religious elite of his day had a problem with this. They appeared on the outside to be righteous…but inwardly they were fully of hypocrisy as they constantly broke the laws of God. In order to avoid walking down that same road that leads to hell, we need to clean both the outside and the inside. We need to not only appear to be righteous and godly…but to ACTUALLY be that way on the inside.
That will only happen if we are truly converted to Jesus Christ. It starts by being born again through water, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God (John 3:5; Tit. 3:5; James 1:18, 21; 1 Pet. 1:22-23). The Bible calls this obeying the gospel, the good news found in God’s Word which Jesus wanted everyone to hear (1 Pet. 1:24-25; Mark 16:15-16), a message which includes the necessity of us having heartfelt faith, penitence, and being baptized (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:35-38). When we obey the gospel in faith, repentance, and baptism, our sins are washed away (Acts 22:16). That is TRULY cleaning the inside, isn’t it?
We must then continue to be cleansed by putting away the “old” us, how we used to be. We have to become different from everyone else also, and the only way to do that is to serious address what defiles us (Mark 7:20-23). Getting rid of the “old” us is a never-ending, continual process for the Christian (Col. 3:5-11), as is replacing it with the “new” us (Eph. 4:20-24; Col. 3:12-17). It isn’t enough to get rid of the “old.” We must replace it with something “new,” or else our old selves will come back (Matt. 12:43-45). The way we do that is by producing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives instead of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-23).
Friend, have you been born again through faithful, penitent baptism? Are you allowing God to make you different from how you and everyone else used to be by following his Word in every aspect of your life? Or are you physically clean on the outside while being spiritually dirty on the inside? Do you appear to be righteous while secretly you allow sin to reign in your life? I encourage us all to look to Jesus and become like him in order to be truly converted and sanctified from the rest of the world. Let’s not be those whitewashed tombs!