Bible Interpretation Part 4: Finding the Meaning
Where is the Meaning?
There are two major divisions of the Bible, the Old Testament, and the New Testament. These divisions are made up of a total of 66 books. These books are written by some 40 different authors. Each book is further divided into chapters. And the chapters of the books can often be divided by theme, story or topic. Even with all these possible divisions, the Bible is telling one story. The story of the Bible is the redemption of people by God through His Son Jesus. The Bible is in complete agreement with itself. But each section of the Bible is telling a different part of the overall story.
The question we must ask is where is the meaning of each text found. This question is actually not very complicated. The meaning of the text is found in the text itself. While there are parallels in the Bible, and other references can sometimes shed light and understanding on a passage, the meaning of the passage is always found in the verses themselves.
Many times I have seen a person come across a verse and rather than stay with the text, they go to another passage to get the meaning. Often, they go to another book and in some cases even transverse testaments to come to a conclusion about the verse at hand. This is very similar to taking a verse out of context. Just as a verse is found in a context, so the meaning of the verse is also found in the context.
Born of Water
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. John 3:3-6
What does it mean to be born of water? We could look in the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament to try to determine the meaning. Some have used New Testament verses to say that Jesus is talking about water baptism.
Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’
This creates a very serious problem. The theme of the passage and the issue being discussed in regeneration. Both Jesus and Nicodemus use the term “born again.” Jesus says that a man must be born again. It is obvious from his reply that Nicodemus does not understand Jesus. Jesus is pressing the point of regeneration and Nicodemus is thinking only about the natural birth of a person. If we link Baptism to regeneration we fall into the heresy of Baptismal regeneration. Water baptism does not save and regenerate a person. Water baptism is a profession of faith that gives formal unity to the Church by a regenerate person. Baptism is the public profession of faith and regeneration.
The other option is to resort to the Old Testament to find our answer. Some believe that water here refers to the symbolic cleansings found in the ceremonial laws given to the Jewish people.
"Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the doorway of the tent of meeting and wash them with water.
There are even well known and good commentators who take this position. This idea might have some merit given that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and they were strict regarding ceremonial law. However, there are still a few problems.
1) Cleansing from sin goes beyond the topic that Jesus is discussing.
2) There is no mention of ceremonial cleansing or symbolic cleansing in the text.
3) Jesus is setting forward a new pattern that will be carried out throughout the New Testament as to who the people of God are. And this new pattern is in direct contradiction to the external cleansing of the Old Covenant.
4) Even Nicodemus does not see symbolic or ceremonial cleaning. Given that he is a Pharisee it would be natural for him to appeal to such laws to justify himself but he does not.
Close to the Text
I think the answer to the question is found in the text. Jesus says that a person needs to be born again. Nicodemus responds regarding the natural birth of a baby from the womb. Some have speculated that Nicodemus is using this phrase to express an absurdity. Many commentators believed this was a common rhetorical device of the Hebrews. Jesus responds by giving more light to Nicodemus.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Jesus is saying that a person must be born of the womb to be alive but that is not enough. They must also experience a spiritual birth. This is supported by the rest of the New Testament. We know that even though a man is alive physically, he is still dead spiritually. Physical birth begins with water. The baby in the womb is surrounded by amniotic fluid. In fact, when the birth process begins, we often say that the woman’s “water broke.” The fluid that surrounds the baby is leaking from her womb in preparation for the birth, that is very soon to come.
I would further support that Jesus is referring to the natural birth as “born of water” but the next verse.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Jesus is contrasting the physical birth of the womb with the spiritual birth of regeneration. This parallels what Jesus said earlier. One must be born of water, that is the physical womb, and one must also be born of the spirit. Given that there is a mention of the womb and natural birth, there is really no reason to seek the meaning of the verse any place else. When the answer is in or very near the verse, there is no reason to seek to import another meaning from far away.