The Meaning of Water in the New Testament

Water is a sacred symbol popular in many world religions. In different religions it possesses different functions but it is hard to find a religion where water does not occupy a special place. In many religions water is treated like one of fundamental elements which compose our Universe. For ancient civilizations water used to be the source of life. First people organized their settlements near the rivers. The water was used for drinking, transportation and fishing. The lives of people depended on water to great extent. Some ancient tribes had to wander from one place to another looking for the sources of water. People of those times were totally dependant on the natural forces and these beliefs are reflected in many ancient religions.

In Christianity water also possesses an important function. The theme of water is important in the Bible. Water there is used in three different meaning: a material thing, a symbol and a metaphor.  In many cases the metaphor of water is used to explain different notions.  In the New Testament the meaning of water is deeper and more symbolic in comparison to the Old Testament. In the Old Testament water is mostly treated like a material resource. God has total control over this resource and provides people with necessary amount of water. In some cases God punishes people with the help of water. For example, in the story about the Noah’s Ark the population of the world dies because of the flood. In another place of the Old Testament God punishes people with great drought (1 Kings 17:1). In most of the references to water in the Old Testament it is described like a material necessity totally controlled by God. Only in some rituals of the Old Testament water is mentioned. In these rituals water is used as a symbol of purification. Priests and other servants of God had to get through the ritual of purification, which involved water, before making sacrifices. Here water is taken as a symbol of purification of spirit. Only after this ceremony people were able to approach God.

In the New Testament the material meaning of water becomes of secondary importance. Water becomes a symbol and metaphor, which help the authors of the Bible to pass the message to their readers. Water is used in several miracles of Jesus. It is also used as a metaphor of birth and life. For example, Jesus states: “Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of the water, even the Spirit” (John 5:20). In some places of the New Testament the water reflects human sprit and spiritual training. The word water in the New Testament often refers to eternal life and salvation. This salvation is achieved through true faith in God  and his Son Jesus Christ. In his discourse with the Samaritan woman Jesus speaks about salvation as about “living water” and compares it to “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10-15). The theme of spiritual cleaning is also often compared with physical cleaning when the water is used.  Spiritual cleaning assumes following the will of God and accepting his offer of salvation.

In one of his speeches Jesus speaks about “the stream of living water”, which flows from him to all his followers (John, 7:37). Living water here is regarded as the Holy Spirit.  In some passages God himself is described like “spring of living water.” This metaphor is very convenient as it helps to pass the meaning of God, who becomes the source of everything, same like spring of water gives beginning to the rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. This metaphor reminds people that wherever they see water, they must remember about its spring, the source which gave birth to it. Same our Universe becomes a manifestation of God and everything we see around us is only His reflections. These words are constantly repeated by Jesus in his sermons.

Water has deep symbolism in the New Testament. In many cultures and religions water becomes a symbol of inner transformation. Water is an essence which can change its form. It can become liquid, steam or ice. That is why water is often used as a symbol of transformation and in the New Testament this meaning of water is also broadly used. In the New Testament water becomes “the symbol of baptism, which gives us new life and hope and makes us one with Jesus and with each other” (DeMaris, 48). Inner transformation which occurs to the person who turns to Christian faith can be compared to the transformation of water which passes from one state to another. In addition, water has an ability to come back to its source and foundation. Same do people who were converted to Christianity get an opportunity to come to God as their ultimate source.

The reference to “water” in John’s Gospel is very important to understanding the meaning of water in the New Testament.  John uses phrase “being born from water” for several times. Different scholars give different interpretations to this phrase. Some of them refer this phrase to the process of natural birth. The person comes from water when he or she is born. Others turn to parallels between water and Holy Spirit and speak about all people as born by God. Another group of scholars believes that this phrase is used in the meaning of water baptism or ceremony of conversion to Christianity. In this case we can speak about the process of rebirth. Being converting into true faith the person gets the second birth and according to the Bible this birth is much more important than the second one. “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” (DeMaris, 63). So, water is important for any the first and the second birth and in the Bible it becomes that symbol of new life and regeneration.

Water is also mentioned in the story about the miracles of Jesus. John gives deeper explanation to these miracles and their meaning than other writers of Gospels do. John does not center on the miracles themselves. He gives them deep interpretation underlying their spiritual meaning. “For John the miracles are signs not of the imminence of the coming of God’s kingdom as that term is used in the Synoptic Gospels but of the presence of the Logos, or the power of God, which brings about a transformation in people’s lives” (DeMaris, 60).  In the first miracle Jesus turns water into wine during the feast in Cana. Explanation of each miracle helps to understand some aspect of spiritual path which helps people to approach God. Jesus turns water into wine not only to prove the majesty of his Father and make other people fear and respect him. The miracle has deep meaning. The transformation of water into wine can be interpreted like a transformation which occurs to person when he or she turns to God. The water, which is regarded as a symbol of purification turns into a wine after Jesus touches it. This story is a symbolic interpretation of path of each religious person and different stages of the spiritual path. Purification is the first stage and in the first miracle it is symbolized by water. The touch of Jesus becomes person’s decision to let Jesus into his or her life.  Only presence of God is able to transform the personality. But in order to be able to experience the miracle of transformation the person should be as pure as water.

An accent on the cleansing and purification and water as their symbol is also made in anther important passage of the Gospel of John.

Before the Passover meal Jesus washes feet of his disciples. This deeply symbolic act also illustrates purification necessary to approach Jesus. As he himself states: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” These words one more time point out to purification necessary for everybody who wants to know the true faith and water becomes a symbol of this purification.

Water performs several important functions in the New Testament. It serves a symbol and metaphor which helps to pass important message of Jesus to all his disciples.

Leave a Reply