Greek: ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς· ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.
My Translation: Jesus answered, "Amen Amen I say to you, if a man is not born from water and wind, he cannot enter into the kingdom of the heavens."
KJV: 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.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
I love this story from the third chapter of John. The author has done a superb job of making an engaging dialog based upon irony and misunderstanding. It's like a biblical sitcom piece, and it's funny. Not accidentally, either. The author has quite purposefully approached it in a way that would have been both entertaining as well as educational.
I'm guessing most of you reading didn't know this. The problem is that it's difficult to appreciate in any language other than Greek.
Let's start with the context: this verse is from a larger dialog between Jesus and a certain Nicodemus, identified as one of the leaders of the Jews. Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night to meet with Jesus in secret. He comes because the miracles of Jesus have convinced him that there's something to Jesus.
Then Jesus begins "teaching" Nicodemus, except when he tells Nicodemus something he uses words that are ambiguous in meaning, and every time Nicodemus mishears or is confused by Jesus. The irony for a listening Christian audience, who know the insider language being used, would have been immense.
First off, Jesus tell him that unless a man is born ἄνωθεν (ánōthen), he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Ánōthen is a Greek adverb modifying the verb "born", and it can either mean "again" or "from above". The Greek is ambiguous (purposefully so in this case), and Nicodemus thinks it means "again", so he asks Jesus if it's possible to be born a second time. Then Jesus explains what he meant, showing that the meaning Nicodemus should have used was "from above," which is what the above verse is explaining. A man must have a spiritual rebirth, a birth "from above," if he wishes to enter God's kingdom.
The rest of the story is like this. Jesus then begins talking about the spirit and wind in the worship of God, utterly confusing poor Nicodemus, because in Greek Jesus is using the same word for both "spirit" and "wind", flitting back and forth in meaning in a way where you can't quite tell where he might mean "spirit" in this phrase or were he might mean "wind" in this other phrase. And then, in classic style for Jesus in the gospel of John, he begins talking in a long monologue (only in John's gospel does Jesus usually begin talking to people for a few bits of dialog before launching into long-winded sermons that last for multiple verses or even multiple chapters).
This use of purposefully ambiguous Greek is one of the reasons that most scholars feel that this section of John's Gospel cannot be historically accurate. The phrasing and ambiguity only work in Greek (that's why in English the chapter feels odd, because a translator must choose a meaning for the words being used), but Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking Aramaic. In Aramaic there is no equivalent to ánōthen, and so there is no way that John's Gospel, written in Greek, could be a record of a similar Aramaic discussion. Perhaps there was a similar dialog/sermon spoken by the historical Jesus, but if so then it was not the one we have recorded in John's gospel.
A few things about what is said here in this verse: Greek has a definite article (like the English word "the": "the apple"), but not an indefinite article (like the English word "a" or "an": "an apple"). The definite article is often used in places where it wouldn't be in English, such as with proper names or people (so in Greek, the scriptures often refer to God as "The God"). There is no definite article in front of the word "spirit" in this verse, and only a few verses later, Jesus begins a discussion of the spirit and wind. So is Jesus speaking about what Mormons would call "the Gift of the Holy Ghost" here? Possibly, but an equally valid reading would be the translation that I provided: "wind". Is Jesus saying that entrance to the kingdom of God is predicated upon baptism and confirmation? Possibly, but he could also simply be referring to the elements that come from the air, where the heavens are: wind and water. So he could be saying that we must be born from heaven, or born spiritually, to enter God's kingdom. It's not a cut and dried issue to simply say, "This scripture says that baptism is required." And to say that the scripture says that "confirmation" or "the gift of the Holy Ghost" is required goes way beyond the verse itself.
Of course, there's been a long tradition in Christianity of baptism and of the need for baptism. The Catholics viewed baptism as so essential that eventually they provided the means and the practice to extend baptism to all humans by infant baptism (though they still accept baptism by immersion for those who wish for it). Many Protestants also have had periods in their history where the importance of baptism by water was paramount.
Of course, nowadays there are very few denominations that view baptism as completely essential to salvation. And it's not like they arrived at this conclusion by ignoring their Bibles. There are perfectly valid ways to interpret ambiguities such as those found in John 3:3-5 that do not create a requirement of water baptism for salvation.
For Mormons, baptism is still of paramount importance. The Book of Mormon has the pre-Christian prophet Nephi writing in the 6th Century BCE that baptism by water is the only way to start on the road towards eternal life. The Doctrine and Covenants repeatedly presses this point, and the doctrinal position that not only is baptism essential, but the proper authority must be present means that Mormons believe only their baptisms can start people on the road to eternal life. This leads to such things as baptism for the dead and the worldwide missionary program. And, of course, scriptures like John 3:5 as found in the English King James Bible seem, at first glance, to support their viewpoint. However, there are many other Biblically-literate Christians who have read and are very familiar with the Gospel of John who recognize that the underlying scripture is based on the ambiguity of certain words and that it would be incorrect to state that only one interpretation can be valid.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
This scripture was probably chosen to give LDS youth a way to answer the question, "Why do you think that I have to be baptized into your Church to be saved?" Or to explain why baptism is important. Since nearly all youth who would be attending Seminary were probably baptized years before when they turned 8, I doubt that CES would feel the need to impress upon them the importance of baptism without it being from a proselytizing viewpoint.