J. A. Trench.
Article 21 of 55 from 'Truth for Believers' Volume 2.
Water is the symbol of the Word of God applied to the soul, in power, by the Spirit of God. A reference to other Scriptures will prove this.
Compare the expression we are considering in John 3:5, "born of water," with James 1:18, where we read, "Of his own will begat he us by the word of truth"; and with 1 Peter 1:23, which runs, "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." Then turn to Ephesians 5:26, where we find the water definitely identified with the Word in the expression, "The washing of water by the word."
Water purifies; hence by the use of the symbol more is conveyed than if it had been simply said "born of the word." It includes the effect produced, as well as the instrumentality used of God in this, the beginning of all His ways with us in grace.
In the types water has as large a place as the blood. Both flowed from the pierced side of the Lord Jesus in death. (John 19:34) This is the historic order, and in it the blood comes first, as the basis of everything for God's glory and our blessing. In the order of application to us, as John in his epistle (1 John 5:6) gives it, the water comes first, "This is he that came by water and blood … and it is the Spirit that beareth witness." The Spirit it is who applies the Word to the conscience, by which mighty operation of sovereign grace we are born absolutely anew. The effect in us is the conviction of sins; and when faith rests on the testimony of the Spirit to the value of the blood of Christ that cleanseth from all sin, He (the Spirit) can take up His dwelling-place in us to be the power of the enjoyment of all that we have been brought into by the water and the blood: and the Christian position is then complete.
But fastening our attention on the water, it is important to see that there is a double application of what it represents as in John 13:10: "He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." There is first, as we have seen, being "born of water and of the Spirit"; this answers to the first washing mentioned here, and, as it is the communication of a new life and nature, cannot be repeated; we are "clean every whit." Nor is this by any change in the character of the flesh in us; "that which is born of the flesh is flesh," and there can be no purification of it. The Word applied by the Spirit to our souls carries with it the sentence of death upon all that is of the flesh. God could do nothing with it but end it in judgment (Gen. 6:13), a judgment He carried out for faith in the death of His Son. (Rom. 8:3) Thus the water was found where the blood was in His death. It is, on the one hand, the end of the flesh in total condemnation, and on the other, the introduction of a life in which we can live to God and enjoy Him for ever.
But we have to pass with this life through a defiling world, where all that meets the senses tends to hinder communion with Him who is our life. Hence the need of the second application of the Word, symbolised by the Lord's touching service to His disciples. (John 13)
He girded Himself with the towel, and, pouring water into a basin, He began to wash their feet, and wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded. It was, as Jesus tells Peter, that we might have "part with him" when He is gone, that is, as having departed out of the world to the Father. (Ver. 1) We have to go through the world out of which He has had to depart, and therein lies all our need: liable to contract defilement at every step, or at least that which would bring moral distance between our souls and Him, He knows how to apply His word to bring back the soul to the enjoyment of His presence, in His ever faithful and unfailing love, that there may not be even a shade of reserve between us and Him. That first action of His word by which we were clean every whit in the divine nature could never be repeated; this is needed continually. Nor does He leave us to apply it to ourselves (if I wash thee not), though He may use any of us who have learned in the school of His grace, in this privileged service to others. (Ver. 14)
It is of interest, as helping to bring out the distinction all the more clearly, that the Lord employs two different words in this tenth verse according to their clearly defined usage in the Greek version of the Old Testament. "He that is washed" (or "bathed"), as applicable to the whole person, is the word louo, used of the washing of the priests on the day of their consecration. (Ex. 29:4) "Needeth not save to wash (nipto) his feet," is that used for the washing of their hands and their feet in the laver at the tabernacle door, every time they went into the sanctuary. (Ex. 30:18, 21) And the words are never interchanged. But, in noting this, we must remember the difference between preparation for priestly entering into the holy places, as in the Old Testament, and this wonderful service of the Lord for us, that we may have the constant enjoyment of His presence as having gone to the Father.
May our hearts be more deeply affected by the love that would not leave a spot on our feet; and may we yield ourselves up to the searching action of His word upon us, when it is needed that He should apply it, rather than be content to walk at a distance from Him, clinging to something that maintains that distance, to His dishonour and our own incalculable loss.