“1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” (John 3:1-21)
One of the reasons I would like to deal with the above passage as pertains to the topic of getting baptized is because, whenever you get into a discussion on this issue, invariably, John 3:5 surfaces, and the argument goes like this: “Jesus said that unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. It is obvious that being born of water means to be baptized. That is why we baptize infants. That is why we believe that baptism is important part of a person’s salvation experience. For Jesus said it right here in this passage.” (In this, I have taken the ‘lighter’ side of the argument. The ‘stronger’ side is that baptism is actually required in order to secure a person’s salvation, and that without baptism a person cannot be saved — hence the need to baptize quickly, i.e. as an infant (often sprinkling or pouring).
Since John 3:5 is basically always “invoked” in this way in an attempt to strengthen the position of infant baptism — and you will basically find this verse quoted in anyone and everyone’s dissertation on why infant baptism is “necessary” — I would like to take the opportunity to discuss this verse and what I believe it really means. In this, I do not mean to offend anyone’s tradition, for I know that a great deal of individuals who claim to be “Christian” in fact have been taught that John 3:5 refers to infant baptism. I would that you could hear me out just for a moment, and let the Scriptures decide for themselves. This could be a very pivotal point in your own life, as you discover that John 3:5 in no way teaches that a person needs to be baptized in order to be saved — in fact, it teaches just the opposite.
Having said this, I think the Mark 16:16 passage is clear. A person is saved if they have come to faith and have been baptized (notice the order of this carefully worded passage. It is very important. Saved first, and then baptized.). The condition for “salvation” versus “lostness” in this verse is delineated (explained or detailed) in the statement, “He who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16b) Thus, salvation is truly a matter of faith, and not of works, which is consistent with the rest of the Scriptures. In Mark 16:16a, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” Jesus is simply saying, “He who has demonstrated obedience to my command to be baptized is the one I will honor, and the one that will be with me in heaven.” This is very serious. Faith alone saves, in accordance with the rest of the Scriptures: “For by grace have you been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) However, baptism is the “evidence of faith” in this verse.
John 3:5, then, certainly “seems” to talk about baptism, but that is only because the word “water” is mentioned, not because it is contextually evident from the passage. John 3:4,5,6 are actually an isolated “package” of verses in the greater context of this passage. They go together, and the reason that Jesus has mentioned, “being born of water” in John 3:5 is because Nicodemus himself asked, “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus’s response was, essentially, “No, you’re a little confused, Nicodemus. You must be born of your mother, that is true. But that is not what makes you acceptable to God. You must also be born again. Notice the expression “born of the Spirit” and “born again” are interchangeable in this passage. The Scriptures do this to help us to understand what being “born again” really means and to clarify for us the meaning of the expression, “being born again” lest there be any confusion. It means to “be born of God’s Spirit” as opposed to being “born of man’s flesh”. This is precisely what the John 3:4-6 passage is all about, and, why it is critical that you understand that to be “born of water” is not a work imposed upon us by Jesus as another means of earning God’s favor.
It is precisely this “delineation” (this division) between beign born of the “flesh” and being born of the “Spirit” that Jesus is making so clear to Nicodemus in John 3:5 when he says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, Nicodemus has just made the statement, “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, upon realizing that Nicodemus is thinking along the physical lines only, responds to him in his “physical” (fleshly) way of thinking, in order to relate to what Nicodemus has just said in the previous verse, namely, in John 3:4. Jesus’s response is designed to provide a “continuous flow” with respect to what Nicodemus has just asked. Rather than saying, “Nicodemus you are wrong” and so risk closing him off right at that point, Jesus responds in an “agreeable” fashion by saying, “Yes, you do need to be born of water, that is true — namely, being born of the flesh — but you must also be born of the Spirit. He puts it in a way which Nicodemus can relate to, because, when a baby was born back then and today, it was born “through water” as everyone knew that there was plenty of water that flowed out of the mother’s womb just prior to the birth. Thus, to be born “of water” was the same thing as being born “through water” which was just another way of saying, “being born physically” or “into this world by the normal means.” Thus, the statement, “being born of water,” simply means, “being born of the flesh,” whereas “being born of the Spirit,” means to be “born again” (the two are interchangeable). That this is truly the meaning of the verse flows from the context of the passage.
First, you have Nicodemus asking how a person could enter his mother’s womb. Next, you have Jesus responding that a person needs to be born of water and the Spirit. Third, you have the “summary statement” of what Jesus is really talking about, “just in case” we might have missed it, thus leaving us without excuse as to how we interpret this passage: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Notice how this fits perfectly with the explanation I have provided as to what it means to be “born of water.” If, to be “born of water” was an act of obedience (such as baptism) required in order to get into heaven, then Jesus has not done anyone a favor in suddenly “dropping” the being “born of water” part in the very next verse, where he says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” For in John 3:5, Jesus has mentioned two requirements necessary in order to “get in” to the kingdom of heaven — namely being born of water and then being born of the Spirit. But in John 3:6, he drops the “water” part completely, as though it had no bearing at all on a person’s salvation experience. Why? Because being born of water is the same as being “born of the flesh” and so, just to make it clear for all those that would follow and read this passage, Jesus actually separates the two for us, as being diametrically opposed to one another: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In other words, “Yes, Nicodemus, you need to be born of your mother’s womb, as you say, but being born of your mother’s womb and being born of the Holy Spirit are two entirely different things.”
I hope then, that this clarifies this passage, and will help motivate you to getting re-baptized as a new believer, if you have not been baptized already after having come to faith in Christ.