Nicodemus, as a ruler of Jews, was undoubtedly held in high esteem by the people (John 3:1). As a teacher of Israel, he would have had the reputation of understanding spiritual truths and being close to God (John 3:10). Yet, Jesus communicated this truth to him: unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). It was not enough to be a respected religious leader. Knowing God’s law, teaching it, and trying to keep it would not be enough to grant entrance into God’s kingdom. A man must be remade, born anew. When Nicodemus asked how this could occur, Jesus replied that a man must be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). This phrase, especially when read in the Greek, gives the sense of one event. One act, one birth, consisting of the two elements—water and Spirit.
Water is mentioned again later in this chapter and at the beginning of chapter 4. John was baptizing in a place of much water; people would come to him in repentance for forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming kingdom. Jesus was making even more disciples, baptizing them, than John; however, Jesus did not baptize with His own hands, but rather had the disciples baptize.
After Jesus arose from the dead, He gave the command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them (Matthew 28:18-20). The one who believes the Gospel and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:15-16). God saves us, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5). To be “regenerated” is to be born again, and a washing in water does this. Baptism is the birth that makes one a child of God, having put on Christ by faith (Galatians 3:26-27). One is baptized into Christ’s death, where He shed His blood, and rises out of the water to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). Water baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21). The power is not in the water itself; however, the blood of Christ that washes away sins (Ephesians 1:7; Revelation 1:5), is contacted in the water.
The seed from which we are begotten is the word of God (Luke 8:11). We believe God’s word—the seed that begets us (1 Peter 1:23; 1 John 5:1). Receiving Jesus gives us the right to become children of God, the privilege to be born of God (John 1:12-13). When we obey the truth in baptism our souls are purified (1 Peter 1:22). Spiritual death and sins are done away with by God, and new life is given to us by His working: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,” (Colossians 2:11-13).
Many in the religious world today speak of being born again; however, their description of it includes some sort of emotional experience without water. One who is baptized in water, born again, no doubt rejoices in new spiritual life (Acts 8:39). But let’s let Jesus define His own terms. Being born again means being born of water and of the Spirit. In the new birth, God doesn’t do dry cleaning.