By Brannon Howse
The Scripture: Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The Twist: This verse is often taken out of context to say, “People must be baptized. They must be immersed into water and baptized in order to see the kingdom of God, to enter the kingdom of God, to be saved.”
We’re going to look at several twisted scriptures that deal with baptism and the belief that salvation is tied to baptism. To start with, though, let me say clearly that our eternal salvation is not dependent specifically on our being baptized appropriately in water. We have to remember Scripture interprets Scripture, Scripture confirms Scripture, and no part of Scripture contradicts another. If it appears to contradict itself, the problem is with our interpretation.
Do not believe the lie that some kind of work or experience like baptism is tied to salvation. Is baptism important? Absolutely! Should believers be baptized? Yes, they should! But are you saved because of baptism? No, you are not. While baptism matters, it is a sign of obedience and a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
So what does Jesus mean here when He is talking to Nicodemus and says, “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”? That takes a little bit of explaining because Nicodemus would not have understood some of the things that we think Jesus might mean. “Born of water”—maybe that means when a mother’s water breaks before childbirth. Was Jesus referring to your initial physical and natural birth? No, Jesus was not talking about a woman’s water breaking. Nicodemus would not have inferred that meaning.
Others say, “Well, maybe it is referring to baptism.” No, it’s not that either, because we know salvation is not by works according to Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
So what does “born of water and the Spirit” mean? I believe it is referring to the washing of the Spirit by the Word. It is a spiritual way of talking about cleansing, the spiritual cleansing of the Holy Spirit. In Titus 3:5, Paul speaks to this same issue of washing or cleaning by the Holy Spirit when he says we are saved “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.”
Here we’re getting closer to an idea Nicodemus, because he was Jewish, would have understood. Devout Jews in the first century engaged in what was known as ceremonial washing. He would have understood that phrase. When I was researching this, I found some helpful information at jewsforjesus.org. Jewish ceremonial washing was very tedious. The Jews were washing all the time.
Now, I tend to like things clean and neat, and I wash my hands a lot. I’ve done it since I was a child. During the wintertime, in particular, my hands get chapped because I wash constantly when I’m out traveling, speaking, and meeting many people. Maybe you do the same thing when you go to church. It’s great to shake people’s hands and greet them, but you’re careful not to touch your hand to your eyes or nose, because you don’t want to get sick; you don’t want to get a cold. So, as soon as you get the chance, after shaking hands with people or touching doorknobs, you wash your hands. Some people may think it a bit extreme at times, but I am simply trying to avoid getting sick; I can’t afford the “down time” it would cost me.
Ceremonial Jewish washing was a lot like that. Look at Mark 7:3-4:
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.
Concerning Jewish ceremonial washing, John MacArthur writes:
Every animal that was ever sacrificed was a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, right? Every cleansing, every washing of a pot, washing of a pan, washing of the hands, washing of the feet, every ceremonial washing they went through was a symbol of the inward washing of the heart. In the Old Testament economy God was always giving out outward symbols to identify what He wanted to say about inward responses and inward attitudes.
And look at this from Jews for Jesus.org about ceremonial washing: “In the Torah, we read that before the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, God commanded the people to wash their clothing as a symbolic act of purification.” This act is repeated many times in the Old Testament. For example:
- Leviticus 8:6 records the washing of Aaron and his sons when they were ordained as priests to minister in the holy tabernacle.
- In Leviticus 16:4, God commanded Aaron to wash himself before and after he ministered in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
- Numbers 19 gives explicit instructions for purification after defilement by a dead body. After bathing and washing his clothes, the unclean person had to be sprinkled with fresh water combined with ashes from a sacrificed animal.
- The Israelites also used this water of cleansing to purify themselves and their plunder after they battled with the Midianites.
The Jews for Jesus website goes on to say:
All these water rituals formed the basis for the Jewish mikvah laws. While the Hebrew word “mikvah” means literally a collection or gathering together, in this context, it refers to a gathering or pool of water for the purpose of ritual cleansing. The earliest biblical use of the word “mikvah” occurs in 1 Kings 7:23, and its parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 4:2. These verses described a huge, circular Sea of Solomon, constructed along with the first temple for the priests to carry out their ceremonial washing.
When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about being born of water and the spirit, Nicodemus would have understood this as a reference to ceremonial washing and its symbolic washing and purification by the Holy Spirit. It would have made perfect sense to Nicodemus and would be consistent with what we read in other scriptural passages such as Titus 3:5.
The Old Testament foreshadows this truth of Christ in Ezekiel 36:24-27. The prophet claims God is going to restore the Jewish people to their land (which has occurred), but He is also going to restore them spiritually through Jesus Christ as they are washed and purified by the Holy Spirit and the Word:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.
So you see, Nicodemus would have understood washing by the spirit. The “work” of baptism does not save because, “It’s not by works, lest any man should boast; it’s a gift of God.”
Copyright 2014 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.
 John McArthur, “Bible Questions and Answers, Part 30,” posted at: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark%207:3-4&version=NKJV
 “Baptism: Pagan or Jewish?”, posted at: http://www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/v02-n10/baptism