Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
What does this verse have to do with baptism? Nothing at all.
But those who believe baptism is the means to be born again cannot look at this verse without seeing baptism, for it is so convenient to promote their theories of baptismal regeneration.
Let us remember our first rule of Bible study given by God Himself in II Peter 1:20. No statement of the Bible can be used to come up with some private (new, unique, separate, or isolated) interpretation. Every interpretation of an individual Scripture must fit with the whole of Scripture.
We know baptism does not have anything to do with being born again from many other places, so we know baptism cannot be intended by "water" here. Our witnesses to keep us honest with this verse are John 1:13; 3:8; 5:21,24-25; Rom 8:15; 9:16; I Cor 2:14-16; Eph 2:1; and Titus 3:5.
So what is the water? Our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the answer just a few chapters later, when He gives us the key to understanding this verse. He said:
He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
Jesus teaches us plainly that water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, which was exactly His point with Nicodemus. Our first birth by an earthly mother results in a flesh existence, but our second birth by the Spirit results in a spirit existence (3:6). Further use of "water" as a symbol for the Holy Spirit may be found in Ezekiel 36:25; John 4:14; and Ephesians 5:26.
But you may ask, why then does Jesus say we must be born of water AND of the Spirit? If "water" here means the Spirit, is not Jesus being redundantly trite in His use of language. This is a good enough question, but the answer is given clearly by Paul in Titus 3:5, where he wrote:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
Observe that Paul uses a comparable repetition to describe regeneration in this place. We see the "washing of regeneration" and the "renewing of the Holy Ghost." Are not these the same things? Yes, of course; they are both descriptive statements of our vital salvation. But one expression describes the symbolic action of the Spirit, and the other names the Person of the action.
So it is in John 3:5, where Jesus describes the new birth by mentioning the agent used for washing (water), and then He mentions the Person using that symbolic agent (the Spirit). Men are born again by the Spirit of God, Who washes them in the vital cleansing operation of regeneration, which Jesus refers to symbolically with the word "water."
More Difficult Verses
Difficult Baptism Verses
Why does the Bible have verses that sound like baptism is required for salvation? Why did God write these verses: Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 22:16; I Cor 15:29? Learn why God wrote in such a manner, what these verses cannot possibly mean, and how they must be understood.