Water in John 3.5-A Figure of Spirit Baptism

For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit-Acts 1.5 NIV

Jason Engwer has a follow-up post about how Jn. 3.5 doesn’t refer to the rite of water baptism. John’s Gospel contains two further references that give clues to what Jesus refers when He spoke to Nicodemus about being born of water and the Spirit.

The Prophet/Priest Jeremiah in 31.31-34 promises the New Covenant where God’s people would know Him intimately. Importantly, most of the Jewish Priesthood opposed Jeremiah by conspiring against him. Jer. 11.18-23 records how his relatives, from the priestly city of Anathoth, sought his life, while Jeremiah was like an innocent lamb being led to the slaughter in their midst. Ironically, these priests, instead of slaughtering the people’s sacrifices, were seeking to murder God’s prophet. A human priesthood at an earthly temple would never ultimately accomplish eternal redemption, But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises (Heb. 8.6 NIV).

During the same time as Jeremiah another priest/prophet also ministered to Israel while in Babylonian exile, Ezekiel. Some exiles of Judah were already in Babylon while Nebuchadnezzar installed vassal rulers in Jerusalem. Ezekiel, likewise, promised a New Covenant explicitly describing sprinkled water from above and a renewed spirit, presumably by the Holy Spirit, I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (36.25-26 NIV).

God also covenanted rain for Israel while they were in the land, If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit (Lev. 26.3-4 NIV). Hosea promised metaphorical rain, and, probably, the incarnation and New Covenant, if the people would repent and turn to Him, Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth (6.3 NIV).

Being the teacher of Israel (Jn. 3. 10), Nicodemus should have grasped all these prophecies. The terms in Greek, which many English translations render “born again” (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθενin) Jn. 3.3, can also be translated as “born from above.” Therefore, when Jesus explains in Jn. 3.5 what this “born from above” means, He uses the figures of water and the Spirit who come “from above” (from God). Calvin, in his commentary on Jn. 3.5, equates the two terms, water and Spirit, into a single idea noting that the practice is common in prophetic usage. This makes sense in the further flow of the discourse since only the Spirit, not water, is mentioned in the subsequent verses (3.6-8).

In the next chapter, the Samaritan woman at the well, John again includes reference to how the Spirit resembles water, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life (4.14 NIV). That Jesus was referring to the gift of the Holy Spirit is seen later in vss. 23-24, Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (NIV).

In Jn. 7.37-39, John records the account of Jesus attending a Sukkot Festival on the day that is now known as Simchat Torah, and, giving the invitation to (metaphorically) drink from Him: On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified (NIV). Here is probably the best explanation of exactly what Jesus was speaking about to Nicodemus in Jn. 3.5. In a figure, the Spirit is portrayed as quenching the thirst (longing) of humanity’s restless heart. On the basis of Jesus’ atonement for sin, and trust in Him, the Spirit would be “poured out” (Is. 44.3, Joel 2.28-29, Rom. 5.5 et al), establishing a New Relationship with Him. No longer would human priests say, “Know the Lord,” but they (believers) would all know Him (Jer. 31.34).


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