The New Birth– “Not even this great ruler of the Jews could enter the kingdom of God but by a New Birth! “
by Bill Lockwood
One of most powerful interviews in the NT is that of Jesus by Nicodemus recorded in John 3. In it the terms of entrance into the kingdom of God are explained. “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus was going against scholarly public opinion of that day by coming to Jesus. Their disposition was flat rejection. Not interested in considering the Lord’s teaching, the Sanhedrin council, of which Nicodemus was a member, instead plotted to murder Christ. For that reason, Nicodemus was a “secret disciple” (7:51,52).
Prominent in Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus was that noted above: The New Birth—without which no one would see the Kingdom of God (3:3). Not even this great ruler of the Jews could enter the kingdom of God but by a New Birth! Do not miss the point that one is not saved simply by being a faithful Jew. The kingdom cannot be a Jewish entity. Imagine the shock Nicodemus experienced. Jews supposed they would be members of the Messiah’s kingdom by virtue of natural birth. This is wrong. “How could this be?” asked Nicodemus.
Jesus explains: The New Birth consists of “water and spirit” (3:5). One birth, two elements. The fact is given in v. 3. The details in v. 5. Spirit refers to the Holy Spirit. A person is led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:12) into a New Birth. The Spirit speaks to us through His word. Water refers to the water of baptism. Richard Hooker (1533-1600), one of the “divines” if the Church of England, wrote a three-volume study. In it he stated: “Of all the ancient writers there is not one to be named who ever expounded the text otherwise than implying water baptism.”
Another Church of England leader of 1638, John Boys, expanded: “ …Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril, Beda, Theophylact … Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Ambrose, Basil, Gregory …” all understood the text as referring to water baptism as essential to entrance into the Kingdom of God.
How then do many moderns seek to explain the passage as having nothing to do with the essentiality of water baptism? Henry Alford, Greek scholar and Bible translator of yesteryear, puts it succinctly: “All attempts to get rid of baptism in this passage have sprung from doctrinal prejudices by which views of expositors have been warped.” Examples of these abound.
It is NOT: “Water—which is Spirit” (John Calvin). It is NOT: “Water alone” which equals infant baptism or “baptismal regeneration” as taught by the Catholic Church. Baptism, “merely as a rite, apart from the operation of the spirit, does not impart new life” (Vincent, Word Studies, II, 92).
Neither is it that “water” represents physical birth and “spirit” represents “spiritual birth.” Many modern day Baptists have sought refuge in this to avoid the implication of water baptism. They suggest that Jesus in essence answers Nicodemus this way when asked about the New Birth: “One must be born of his mother in natural birth THEN he may be born again by the Spirit.”
Several things need be said here: (1) The form of the expression “water and spirit” makes water and spirit inseparable. One birth—two elements. So states Greek scholar B.F. Westcott, one of translators of the ASV. (2) This overlooks that the whole expression ‘water and Spirit’ defines the manner in which one is born again. G.R. Beasley-Murray, a modern-day Baptist, notes that “suggestions like these do not do justice to the text and have not commended themselves to scholarly opinion.” (3) A parallel is found in John 4:24 where we are commanded to “worship in spirit and truth.” One preposition governs both nouns—spirit and truth. One worship; Two aspects. So also here in John 3:5.
One cannot enter into the kingdom of God but by a spiritual birth (led by the Spirit) through water baptism. Strange ideas to Nicodemus who supposed that traditional Judaism was the door into the Messianic kingdom. Strange ideas to denominations today who seek to avoid water baptism as essential to salvation.