J. A. Trench.
Article 22 of 55 from 'Truth for Believers' Volume 2.
It is very helpful to the soul to see the place that "water" has typically in Scripture as well as the blood; for though, in the ordinary testimony of evangelical Christendom, the latter occupies nearly the whole ground, the former has, in Scripture, an almost equally important place. Both flowed from the side of the Lord Jesus in death, as John bears witness to it. (John 19:31-35)
And note the order, historically — the blood first, as the basis of all for God's glory. In that precious blood-shedding, all that He is in holiness and righteousness against sin and in love to the sinner has been made good, involving pardon and peace for us. But when we come to the application of these blessed realities to us, in the First Epistle of John (ver. 6), the order is reversed. "This is he that came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood." There is something needed before the blood, namely, the Word, of which water is ever the symbol. This needs to be applied to the soul in the power of the Spirit, that there may be the awakening of the conscience and the conviction of sin, to which the blood applies. The Spirit, the water, and the blood, is the order of application.
But it is especially with the water we are now engaged.
Very early we find it in the types. For on the day of the consecration of Aaron and his sons they were washed with water (Lev. 8:6), as well as sprinkled with blood later on. (Ver. 23) This washing was never repeated, though in the laver between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar they washed their hands and their feet when they went into the tent of meeting and came near unto the altar. (Ex. 40:31)
This becomes of great interest to us when we know that the Lord Jesus speaks of this double action of water, in that wonderful scene of John 13. Under the symbol of the washing of His disciples' feet He brings out His present service for His own as having departed out of this world unto the Father. Peter, with his warm, impulsive nature, resented the apparent humiliation of the Lord, saying, "Thou shalt never wash my feet." But this leads the Lord to the true character of the service, of which His action was symbolic — a service of deep significance for us. "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me." This washing is essential to our having part with Him in the realisation and enjoyment of His presence where He has gone. "Lord," he says, "not my feet only, but also my hands and my head." Jesus saith to him, "He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." He declares there was that one first application of the water that needs never to be repeated, being connected with the communication of a new life and nature by the Spirit in which alone there is true cleansing. Secondly, there should be the constant need of the application of the water to our ways, wherein in such a world we are so easily defiled and rendered unfit for the enjoyment of the presence of the Son with the Father. Briefly, it is the Word as applied to the soul first at the new birth; and secondly, by the Lord in His constant service for us in grace, of which the Lord speaks under the symbol of water.
This brings us to the beginning of all God's ways with us in grace — the new birth. Without it our eyes will never be opened on the kingdom of God, as it was manifested in every characteristic trait of its blessedness in the Person of Christ when He was here; nor can we ever enter into it when set up. "Ye must be born again."
"Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." That which is born of the flesh may be religious, as it was in Nicodemus; amiable, cultivated, strictly conscientious, and even blameless in outward life, as in Saul of Tarsus; but it is flesh and never can be anything else than flesh, and is only fit for the judgment of God. But that which is born of the Spirit is spirit; that is, it has the essential nature and characteristic of its source, as the flesh has of its source. There can be no purification of the flesh. There is but one way God can deal with it — as He said in Genesis 6, "The end of all flesh is come before me." It must be dealt with either in the Cross — for faith that submits to the sentence — for "God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh," or else in the lake of fire.
This helps, then, as to why the water for purification, as well as the blood for propitiation, came from the side of Jesus in death. For it is the Word applied by the Spirit that is the mighty instrument of this change. This participation in the life and nature of God carries with it the sentence of God's judgment upon all that is of the flesh in one reached by it. And the purification is by the communication of a new life and nature in which we are clean every whit. Thus in John 13, while Judas was yet present, the Lord has to say (ver. 11), "For he knew who should betray him … Ye are not all clean," Judas having gone out (ver. 30), in John 15:3, He can say, "Now ye are clean, through the word which I have spoken unto you."
Both James and Peter confirm the force of the constant symbol of water. "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth." (James 1:18) "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." (1 Peter 1:23) But by the use of the symbol we are carried beyond the instrumentality of the work to take in also its effects in the cleansing from the defilement of sin, as the blood was needed for cleansing from its guilt.
Paul comes in to complete the testimony, for in speaking of Christ's love to the Church, who gave Himself for it, we learn that His was not only a love of the past, but of the present. If He has cleansed it with the washing of water by the Word, it is that He may form it more and more like Himself by the same means. For the Word is the revelation of all that He is, who has set Himself apart in glory, as the object for our souls, thus to be the source, measure, character, and power of our sanctification, and of our being formed like Him. Nor is this all, for His love will never be satisfied till He can present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot of defilement or wrinkle of old age, or any such thing, but all that His heart can delight in for ever. (Eph. 5:25-27)