The word "water" is used in a variety of metaphorical ways in Scripture. It is used to symbolize the troublesome times in life that can and do come to human beings, especially God's children ( Psalm 32:6 ; Psalms 69:1 Psalms 69:2 Psalms 69:14 Psalms 69:15 ; Isa 43:2 ; Lam 3:54 ). In some contexts water stands for enemies who can attack and need to be overcome ( 2 Sam 22:17-18 ; Psalm 18:16-17 ; 124:4-5 ; 144:7 ; Isa 8:7 ; Jer 47:2 ). In both the Old and New Testaments, the word "water" is used for salvation and eternal life, which God offers humankind through faith in his Son ( Isa 12:3 ; 55:1 ; Rev 21:6 ; Revelation 22:1 Revelation 22:2 Revelation 22:17 ). In John 4:10-15, part of Jesus' discourse with the Samaritan woman at the well, he speaks metaphorically of his salvation as "living water" and as "a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
Following along this same theme, water sometimes symbolizes the spiritual cleansing that comes with the acceptance of God's offer of salvation ( Ezek 36:25 ; Eph 5:26 ; Heb 10:22 ). In fact, in Ephesians 5:26, the "water" that does the cleansing of the bride, the church, is directly tied in with God's Word, of which it is a symbol.
In a very important passage, Jesus identifies the "streams of living water" that flow from within those who believe in him with the Holy Spirit ( John 7:37-39 ). The reception of the Holy Spirit is clearly the special reception that was going to come after Jesus had been glorified at the Father's right hand and happened on the Day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2. Two times in Jeremiah Yahweh is metaphorically identified as "the spring of living water" ( Jer 2:13 ; 17:13 ). In both instances Israel is rebuked for having forsaken the Lord for other cisterns that could in no way satisfy their "thirst."
In other passages of Scripture, the following are said metaphorically to be "water": God's help ( Isa 8:6 : "the gently flowing waters of Shiloah" ); God's judgment ( Isa 28:17 : "water will overflow your hiding place" ); man's words ( Prov 18:4 : "The words of man's mouth are deep waters" ); man's purposes ( Prov 20:5 : "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters" ); an adulterous woman ( Prov 9:17 : "Stolen water is sweet" ); and a person's posterity ( Isa 48:1 : "Listen to this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel and have come forth out of the line [waters] of Judah" ).
The reference to "water" in John 3:5 has been variously interpreted by scholars. Some have taken the phrase, "being born of water, " to mean being born again by means of water baptism. Others have taken the verse to involve a hendiadys and take "water" and "Spirit" together as one reference since water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit in other passages. Still others take the birth by water to be one's natural birth and the birth by the Spirit to be the supernatural birth of being "born again" or regenerated. This seems to be what Nicodemus, in the context, understood Jesus to be saying. In order to enter the kingdom of God one must have two births, each a different kind. After all, water, in its ordinary sense, has a great part to play in the natural birth of a baby. Furthermore, there are too many clear passages and single verses in the Bible that base salvation, entrance into the kingdom of God, and eternal life on faith alone.
Wesley L. Gerig
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Water'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".