Jesus said: “Unless anyone is born from water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) Thus, a person is born again by means of water and spirit. But to what does the expression “water and spirit” refer?
“Water and Spirit”—What Are They?
Being a Jewish religious scholar, Nicodemus was no doubt familiar with the way that the Hebrew Scriptures use the term “spirit of God”—God’s active force, which can influence people to perform special feats. (Genesis 41:38; Exodus 31:3; 1 Samuel 10:6) So when Jesus used the word “spirit,” Nicodemus would have understood it to be the holy spirit, the active force of God.
What about Jesus’ reference to water? Consider the events that are recorded immediately before and after the conversation with Nicodemus. These show that both John the Baptizer and Jesus’ disciples were performing baptisms in water. (John 1:19, 31; 3:22; 4:1-3) This practice became well-known in Jerusalem. Therefore, when Jesus spoke about water, Nicodemus would have discerned that Jesus was referring, not to water in general, but to the water of baptism.*
Baptized “With Holy Spirit”
If being “born from water” relates to being baptized in water, what does it mean to be “born from . . . spirit”? Before Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus, John the Baptizer had announced that not only water but also spirit would play a role in baptism. He said: “I baptized you with water, but he [Jesus] will baptize you with holy spirit.” (Mark 1:7, 8) Gospel writer Mark describes the first time that such a baptism took place. He writes: “In the course of those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And immediately on coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being parted, and, like a dove, the spirit coming down upon him.” (Mark 1:9, 10) When Jesus was immersed in the Jordan, he was baptized with water. At the moment that he received the spirit from heaven, he was baptized with holy spirit.
About three years after his baptism, Jesus assured his disciples: “You will be baptized in holy spirit not many days after this.” (Acts 1:5) When did that occur?
On the day of Pentecost in the year 33 C.E., about 120 disciples of Jesus were gathered in a home in Jerusalem. “Suddenly there occurred from heaven a noise just like that of a rushing stiff breeze, and it filled the whole house in which they were sitting. And tongues as if of fire became visible to them . . . , and they all became filled with holy spirit.” (Acts 2:1-4) That same day, others in Jerusalem were urged to get baptized in water. The apostle Peter told a crowd: “Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the free gift of the holy spirit.” What was the reaction? “Those who embraced his word heartily were baptized, and on that day about three thousand souls were added.”—Acts 2:38, 41.
A Twofold Process
What do these baptisms reveal about the new birth? They show that the new birth takes place by means of a twofold process. Note that Jesus first got baptized with water. Then he received the holy spirit. Similarly, the early disciples had first been baptized in water (some by John the Baptizer), and then they received the holy spirit. (John 1:26-36) Likewise, the 3,000 converts were first baptized with water, and then they received the holy spirit.
Keeping in mind the baptisms that occurred on Pentecost 33 C.E., how should we expect the new birth to take place today? In the same way that it occurred in the case of Jesus’ apostles and early disciples. First, a person repents of his sins, turns away from a wrong course, dedicates his life to Jehovah to worship and serve him, and makes his dedication public by water baptism. Then, if God chooses him to serve as a ruler in His Kingdom, he is anointed with holy spirit. The first part of this twofold process (baptism with water) is initiated by the individual; the second part (baptism with spirit) is initiated by God. When a person undergoes both baptisms, he has experienced the new birth.
Why, though, did Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus use the expression “born from water and spirit”? To underline that those baptized with water and spirit would undergo a remarkable change. The next article considers that aspect of the new birth.
In a similar way, the apostle Peter once said at an occasion of baptism: “Can anyone forbid water?”—Acts 10:47.
The New Birth—What Does It Accomplish?
WHY did Jesus use the expression “born . . . from spirit” when speaking about the baptism with holy spirit? (John 3:5) When used as a figure of speech, the word “birth” means “beginning,” such as in the expression “the birth of a nation.” Hence, the term “new birth” indicates a “new beginning.” Therefore, the figures of speech “born” and “new birth” highlight that there will be a new beginning in the relationship between God and those who are baptized with holy spirit. How does that complete change in relationship occur?
In explaining how God prepares humans for rulership in heaven, the apostle Paul used an illustration taken from family life. He wrote to Christians in his day that they would experience an “adoption as sons” and that God, therefore, could deal with them “as with sons.” (Galatians 4:5; Hebrews 12:7) To see how the example of adoption helps one to understand what sort of change takes place when an individual is baptized with holy spirit, consider once more the illustration of the young man who wants to enroll in a school for students who belong to a native population.
A Change Caused by Adoption
In the illustration, the young man is unable to enroll in the school because he is not a member of the indigenous population. Now, imagine that one day, a big change occurs. He is legally adopted by a father of an indigenous family. How does that affect the young man? Well, because of being adopted as a son, he may now have the same rights as other indigenous youths—including the right to enroll in the school. The adoption has completely changed his prospects.
This illustrates what happens in a much more significant manner to those who experience the new birth. Consider some similarities. The young man in the illustration will be given a place in school but only if he meets the requirement for admission—that of belonging to the native population. Yet, on his own he cannot meet that requirement. Similarly, some humans will be given a place in God’s Kingdom, or heavenly government, but only if they meet the requirement for admission—that of being “born again.” Yet, on their own they cannot meet that requirement because the new birth depends on God.
What changed the condition of the young man? The legal process of adoption. Of course, that process did not change the young man’s nature. After his adoption, he was still the same person. Even so, after the legal requirements for adoption had been met, the young man received a new status. Indeed, he experienced a new beginning—a new birth, so to speak. He became a son, which gave him the right to attend the school and to be part of his adoptive father’s family.
Similarly, Jehovah changed the condition of a group of imperfect humans by initiating a legal procedure to adopt them as his children. The apostle Paul, who belonged to that group, wrote to fellow believers: “You received a spirit of adoption as sons, by which spirit we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15, 16) Yes, through the process of adoption, those Christians had become part of God’s family, or “children of God.”—1 John 3:1; 2 Corinthians 6:18.
Of course, that adoption by God did not change the nature of the adoptees, for they remained imperfect. (1 John 1:8) Nevertheless, as Paul further explained, after the legal requirements for adoption had been met, they received a new status. At the same time, God’s spirit implanted in those adopted sons the conviction that they would live with Christ in heaven. (1 John 3:2) That unmistakable conviction caused by holy spirit gave them a whole new outlook on life. (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22) Yes, they experienced a new beginning—a new birth, as it were.