BORN OF WATER AND OF THE SPIRIT
Regeneration denotes a new birth. This new birth has two elements; it includes being born of water and of the Spirit. In 3:5 the Lord Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” For generations, this verse has troubled Bible teachers and expositors. From the time I was saved and first began to love the Word of God, I was bothered by the expression “born of water and the Spirit.” I inquired of others and I read books on this matter in order to get the right understanding. However, no explanation fully satisfied me. Eventually, through the Lord’s mercy, I believe that we have received the proper understanding of what it means to be born of water and of the Spirit.
Some unusual interpretations have been given of the water in 3:5. In 1964 I was talking with some believers who strongly opposed the practice of water baptism. During the course of the conversation, I asked the leading one among them about the Lord’s word concerning the water and the Spirit in John 3:5. He answered by giving a very strange, peculiar, and extraordinary explanation of the words “born of water.” He said that the water in 3:5 signifies the water in the womb of our mother. He went on to say that every genuine Christian has experienced two births. In the first birth we pass through the water in our mother’s womb, and in the second birth we are born of the Holy Spirit. According to him, this is the meaning of being born of water and of the Spirit. I was astounded at that interpretation. I had been preaching and teaching the Bible for more than thirty years, and I had read a number of books on John 3. But never had I heard anyone say that the water in 3:5 refers to the water of our mother’s womb. Such an interpretation is altogether incredible and unreasonable. Can you imagine that when the Lord Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, an elderly man, He was referring to the water of our mother’s womb? What a terrible thought! If that were the situation, then what is spoken of in 3:5 would not be a sign.
The words “of water and the Spirit” should have been plain to Nicodemus without any need of explanation. Similar words were spoken by John the Baptist to the Pharisees in Matthew 3:11. Hence, they should have been fully understood among the Pharisees. Here Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, is speaking to the Lord, and the Lord speaks these familiar words. Water was the central concept of the ministry of John the Baptist, that is, to terminate people of the old creation. Spirit is the central concept of the ministry of Jesus, that is, to germinate people in the new creation. These two main concepts put together are the whole concept of the matter of regeneration. Regeneration, to be born anew, is the termination of people of the old creation with all their deeds and the germination of them in the new creation with the divine life.
According to Matthew 3:11 and 12 John the Baptist said, “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance; but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to bear; He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire; whose winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly cleanse His threshing floor and will gather His wheat into His barn, but He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Here John clearly speaks of baptismal water. He seemed to be saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “I baptize you only with water. Because I am merely a man, you may be a hypocrite and be able to cheat me. But you will not be able to deceive the One who is coming. He is not only man, but also God. He will baptize you either with the Spirit or with fire. If you are genuine, He will put you into the Spirit. But if you are hypocritical, one day He will put you into the fire.”
Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, must have been familiar with the word of John the Baptist concerning water and the Spirit. The Lord Jesus must have realized this. Therefore, when Nicodemus spoke to Him regarding signs, the Lord told him about being born of water and of the Spirit. The Lord Jesus seemed to be saying to Nicodemus, “You need to be born of the water according to what John the Baptist said, and you also need to be born of the Spirit. John was the forerunner of My ministry and introduced to you the matters of baptism in water and in the Spirit. Now, Nicodemus, you must take the water and the Spirit. You must be born of the water and of the Spirit. Do you know what the water will do for you? The water will terminate you by burying you. Nicodemus, you are a gentleman with a good education and a high position in society. You refer to Me as a rabbi. You don’t need a rabbi, Nicodemus. You need someone to bury you. You don’t need more teaching. You already have enough. You need a burial, a burial in water. John tried to bury you in water, but you Pharisees wouldn’t take it. Now you come to Me and refer to Me as a teacher come from God. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you are born of the terminating water and the germinating Spirit, you cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
(The Fulfillment of the Tabernacle and the Offerings in the Writings of John, Chapter 6, by Witness Lee)