Having had the chance to preach on the old Nicodemus story of John 3 again today, I centered my thoughts on the meaning of this phrase in Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again to enter the kingdom of God. Some interpret this phrase (“born of water”) to be some kind of reference to natural birth but this doesn’t make much sense in view of the fact that physical birth is a given. Also it would discount the fact that angels are already part of God’s kingdom. Most believe it to be some kind of reference to water baptism. Though related to the main idea, I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind either.
It seems to me that “being born of water” is a reference to the “washing” that is accomplished in our lives through faith in the message of the Gospel. Ezekiel 36:25-27 speaks both about a “cleansing” as well as a “new spirit.” In Titus 3:5 Paul writes about “the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Ephesians 5:26 talks about “the washing of water through the Word.” And 1 Peter 1:23 talks about “being born again” of imperishable seed, “through the living and enduring word of God.”
I conclude from this that Jesus’ reference to being “born of water” in John 3:5 is about hearing the message of the Gospel and responding to it in faith as a part of and pre-requisite to the rebirth accomplished by the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t work arbitrarily by His Spirit in bringing about spiritual rebirth. Rather it happens as a person hears the message and believes. Baptism, of course, symbolizes this washing, but it is not the washing itself. So Jesus shares the message with Nicodemus about the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:13, 14), and presumably Nicodemus believes and is “born again.” At least it seems evident that Nicodemus became a believer (John 7, 19).
So it is that through the communication of the message of the Gospel of Jesus (that He died and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins) that faith is born in the heart and the person is “born again” of the Spirit. This means that our part is simply to communicate this message (Romans 10:9-15). People aren’t “saved” by some spiritual experience apart from faith in this Gospel. And it is faith in Jesus that becomes the basis of assurance of eternal life, as John so aptly pointed out in his first letter (1 John 5:11, 12). It’s also significant that John makes this point about the Gospel in John 3:16, just after the story of Nicodemus.