A gracEmail subscriber writes, “Jesus says that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5). I have heard for many years that this means that unless you are baptized, you cannot be saved. Is this a reference to baptism in water?”
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These words are part of a conversation between Jesus and a ruling Pharisee named Nicodemus, in which Jesus challenges the assumption of the Jewish establishment that fleshly birth into Israel also obtains a ticket into the Kingdom of God (see also John 8:33; Matt. 3:9). The whole conversation contrasts earthly birth and heavenly birth, physical birth and spiritual birth — and so, I think, does this expression. In light of the context, I do not think that Jesus’ remarks here concerning “water” refer directly to the water of baptism.
Jesus begins by telling Nicodemus that unless one is born “again” (literally, “from above”), he cannot see God’s kingdom (John 3:3). Since every human being has, by definition, been born once already, to be born “from above” would necessarily mean being born “again.” [The Greek word which John uses here occurs 12 other times in the New Testament and is translated “from above” (John 3:31; 19:11; James 1:17; 3:15, 17); the “top” (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; John 19:23); “from above” or “again” (John 3:3, 7); “from the very first” (Luke 1:3); “from the beginning” (Acts 26:5), and once is left untranslated (Gal. 4:9).]
Supposing that Jesus is talking about someone being reborn physically, Nicodemus asks how such an impossible thing could happen (John 3:4). Jesus repeats that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). He quickly explains that comment by adding that what “is born of flesh is flesh” and what “is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). “Do not marvel that I said to you,” he concludes, “‘You [plural, meaning the Pharisees and all other Jews] must be born again” [literally, “from above”] (John 3:7).