John 3:1-21 New King James Version
The New Birth
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus answered Nicodemus’s confusion by elaborating on the truth He introduced in verse 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
There are a number of interpretations that have been offered to explain the phrase born of water.
Some see two births here, one natural, and the other spiritual. Proponents of this view interpret the water as the amniotic fluid that flows from the womb just before childbirth. But it is not clear that the ancients described natural birth in that way.
Others see in the phrase “born of water” as a reference to baptism, either that of John the Baptist, or Christian baptism. But Nicodemus would not have understood Christian baptism (which did not yet exist) but he probably understood John the Baptist’s baptism.
Still others see the phrase as a reference to Jewish ceremonial washings, which being born of the Spirit transcends. However the two terms are not in contrast with each other, but combine to form a parallel with the phrase “born again” in verse 3.
Since Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand this truth, it must have been something with which he was familiar. Water and Spirit often refer symbolically in the Old Testament to spiritual renewal and cleansing.
In a glorious passage of Scripture describing Israel’s restoration to the Lord by the new covenant, God said through Ezekiel,
For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.
Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezekiel. 36:24–27)
It was surely this passage that Jesus had in mind, showing regeneration to be an Old Testament truth (cf. Deuteronomy. 30:6; Jer. 31:31–34; Ezekiel. 11:18–20) with which Nicodemus would have been familiar with.
Against this Old Testament backdrop, Christ’s point was unmistakable: Without the spiritual washing of the soul, a cleansing accomplished only by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) through the Word of God (Ephesians. 5:26), no one can enter God’s kingdom.
Ephesians 2:8-9 New King James Version
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
2 Corinthians 5:17 New King James Version
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.