I’m continuing to make my way slowly through Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church. I just finished his discussion of John 3:5 and was surprised to read that he believes the expression “born of water” does refer to baptism. He says, “John 3:5 became the most cited baptismal text in the second century and continued to be important afterward. Despite the overwhelming historical and majority contemporary consensus, there have been insistent efforts to remove John 3:5 from the dossier of baptismal texts.” (143) He engages D. A. Carson as “one of the better attempts” to defend the position of a non-baptismal understanding of the phrase. Carson’s treatment is in his commentary on John in the Pillar series. Given the importance of this phrase I was a bit disappointed in the brevity it received from Ferguson—a mere 3 ½ pages. (You can hear a sermon on John 3:1-21 entitled “A Night of Questions” by Carson here.)
This discussion prompted me to look at how the major study Bibles treated this phrase. Let’s take a look. Some notes are shortened for the sake of brevity.
ESV Study Bible – The phrase born of water and the Spirit in 3:5 refers to spiritual birth, which cleanses from sin and brings spiritual transformation and renewal. Water here does not refer to the water of physical birth, nor is it likely to refer to baptism. The background is probably Ezek. 36:25-27, where God promises, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean. . .
NLT Study Bible – water and the Spirit (or and spirit; the Greek word Spirit can also be translated wind; see note on 3:8): John the Baptist baptized with water; Jesus baptized with the Spirit (1:33)
NIV Study Bible – born of water and the Spirit. A phrase understood in various ways: 1. It means much the same as “born of the Spirit” (v. 8; cf. Tit 3:5 and note). 2. Water here refers to purification. 3. Water refers to baptism—that of John (1:31) or that of Jesus and his disciples (see v. 22; 4:2 and notes). 4. Water refers to physical birth, specifically to the water of the amniotic sac (cf. v. 6).
MacArthur Study Bible – born of water and the Spirit. Jesus referred not to literal water here but to the need for ‘cleansing’ (e.g., Ezek. 36:24-27). When water is used figuratively in the OT, it habitually refers to renewal or spiritual cleansing, especially when used in conjunction with ‘spirit’. Thus, Jesus made reference to the spiritual washing or purification of the soul, accomplished by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God at the moment of salvation, required for belonging to His kingdom. (I’ve omitted a number of cross references provided in this note.)
Ryrie Study Bible – born of water and the Spirit. Various interpretations have been suggested for the meaning of ‘water’: (1) it refers to baptism as a requirement for salvation. However, this would contradict many other NT passages (Eph 2:8-9); (2) it stands for the act of repentance that John the Baptizer’s baptism signified; (3) it refers to natural birth . . . (4) it means the Word of God, as in John 15:3; (5) it is a synonym for the Holy Spirit and may be translated, ‘by water, even the Spirit.” One truth is clear: the new birth is from God through the Spirit.
Orthodox Study Bible – This birth of water and the Spirit is a direct reference to Christian baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit given at chrismation.
Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible – born of water and the Spirit. This enigmatic phrase has elicited much discussion and a number of proposed solutions. (1) The ‘water’ in view is the release of the amniotic fluid that accompanies physical birth. But nowhere else in Scripture does the word ‘water’ refer to amniotic fluid. (2) The ‘water’ here refers to the water of Christian baptism. But such a reference, which would have preceded the institution of that rite, would have been meaningless to Nicodemus. (3) The ‘water’ is an allusion to the Old Testament passages in which the terms ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are linked to express the pouring out of God’s Spirit in the latter days, or end times. . . (4) The ‘water’ here refers to John’s baptism. Like Christian baptism, John’s baptism signified cleansing from sin. . .This view offers the most parallels to the old Testament and makes sense in light of the mention of John the Baptist in chapters 1 and 3.
By now you know what I like in a study Bible on a passage like this. I like the various interpretations to be enumerated. I don’t mind if it advocates for one position over another but I want to know what the options are. The NIV Study Bible spells out the options in short order. The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible did an especially nice job with comments noting potential problems with some of the views. The NLT Study Bible was a disappointment. I wasn’t all that happy with the ESV Study Bible either. In the case of the Orthodox Study Bible I’m not looking for interpretive options as much as the Orthodox understanding and that’s what you get. You should know many in the Orthodox community are not at all happy with this Bible. See here for example. For a good paper on this verse as it relates to baptismal regeneration see the discussion by Paul Adams here.