I John 5:6-8
“This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”
– I John 5:6-8, NAU
In I John 5:5-12, John writes a strong passage concerning Jesus as the Son of God, the witnesses to Jesus, and the benefit of eternal life. He begins in verse 5 by saying: “And who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” The victory of faith comes through faith in Jesus.
The fact that Jesus is the Son of God is well attested. In verses 6-8, John deals with the testimony of the water, the blood, and the Spirit. These three witnesses are powerful. Then, in verses 9-12 John presents the Father as a witness. Our attention here, because of the mention of the Spirit, will focus on verses 6-8.
According to McDowell (p. 121), “Our first step in interpretation here is to clarify the text.” The nearly unanimous opinion of scholars is that a part of the text in the King James Version is spurious and should not be included. The King James text says:
6 This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.
7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. KJV
The italicized words (italics mine) are not in the text accepted by most scholars. Thus, the newer Versions (such as NAU and NIV) do not have these words in the text. Here, we will simply comment on the commonly accepted version.
Water and Blood
Burge (p. 201) suggests that I John 5:6 is “perhaps the most perplexing verse in all of the Johannine letters.” Both Burge (p. 201) and Kistemaker (pp. 352-353) present the three main views that attempt to explain the passage. Briefly, I will summarize their presentations here.
First, according to one view, “water” and “blood” refer to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The emphasis of this view is on the sacraments. Kistemaker (p. 353) objects:
But whereas the word water literally stands for baptism, the expression blood has only symbolical significance in the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, the term blood is never used to represent the sacrament of Holy Communion. And this is a serious objection.
Second, some scholars hold that John is referring to the “blood and water” that came forth from the spear wound (John 19:34) in Jesus’ side when He was on the cross. The emphasis of this view is on the atoning death of Christ. According to Burge (p. 201-202):
In this sense John may be saying that the cross is the significant saving event in Jesus’ life. This may be important if the secessionists [John’s opponents] claimed that they were without sin and had no need of ritual cleansing (I John 1:7). But one difficulty with this view is the closing phrase of verse 6, “not . . . by water only, but by water and blood.” John is making a counterpoint to some claim involving only (or primarily) water.
Third, most scholars hold that water and blood refer to the baptism of Jesus at Jordan and His death upon the cross. As Burge states (p. 201), “Jesus’ baptism (water) and crucifixion (blood) frame his ministry. He was declared Son of God in the Jordan (John 1:34), and he obtained even more power and authority through his glorification at Golgotha.”
Burge discusses (p. 202) two variations in this view. According to one variation, some of John’s opponents were claiming that water and Spirit brought saving revelations. Thus, baptism, not the cross, was the saving feature of Christ’s life. Another view is that John’s opponents downplayed a complete incarnation. Some, like Cerinthus, may have taught that Christ descended on the man Jesus at baptism but departed before he was crucified.
Burge draws this conclusion (p. 202): “Either variation of the third view gives a complementary result. John is wrestling with a heresy that demoted the cross. John insists that the testimony of the “water and the blood” upholds a full incarnation. Life and truth can only be found when a complete incarnation embraces a genuine death on the cross.”
Now, John tells us what witnesses support the truth that Jesus is the Son of God. He declares in verse 6, “It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.” Then, in verses 7-8, he states: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”
First, the Spirit testifies concerning Christ. As Kistemaker (p. 353) says, “The Spirit is testifying as a witness to the birth (Matt. 1:20 [conception]; Luke 1:35; 2:25-32), baptism (Matt. 3:16; Luke 3:22), teaching (John 6:63), and ministry of Jesus (Luke 4:1, 18).” Moreover, Jesus said that the Spirit (John 15:26) would testify about Him.
The Spirit will testify because He is the truth. Jesus declared (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” NAU Not only is Jesus the truth, but the Spirit is the truth also. As Kistemaker (p. 353) says, “both Jesus and the Spirit have their essence in the truth. The Spirit testifies because of his identity with the truth in Jesus.”
Second, the water and the blood testify. The Spirit, who is a Person, testifies to the divinity of Christ. In addition the historical events of baptism and crucifixion testify. With regard to these witnesses, Kistemaker (p. 354) raises this question:
But why does John place the historical facts of Jesus’ baptism (water) and death (blood) to which the Spirit testifies, on the same level as the Spirit? How can water and blood testify along with the Spirit? We need to look at the text from a Semitic point of view. Impersonal objects can testify, for example, the heap of stones Jacob and Laban put together was called a witness (Gen. 31:48).
The Agreement of the Witnesses
At this point John stresses the three witnesses are in agreement. The factual evidence of the water and the blood are in full agreement with the testimony of the Spirit.
According to the NAU, John says, “the three are in agreement.” Using his own translation, Lenski (p. 528) states: “and the three are for one thing, i.e., their testimony is one identical thing, the three agree without the least deviation in their one testimony in regard to Jesus and his deity.” Not only are the witnesses unanimous, but they also converge on the truth that Christ came in the flesh. When we believe in this Christ, we have eternal life.
John is deeply concerned with establishing the truth that Christ came in the flesh and gave His life for us. The deity and crucifixion of Christ are absolutely crucial to the gospel. We conclude with this statement by Guthrie (pp. 901-902):
As the Epistle began with the authentication of the message so it closes with the same theme. A threefold witness to Christ is mentioned, the Spirit, the water and the blood, the later two probably referring to he baptism and sacrificial death of Christ. This testimony is greater than human testimony, and anyone who does not believe it makes God a liar.”
For Further Study
Burge, Gary M. The Letters of John: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. London: The Tyndale Press, 1970.
Kistemaker, Simon J. Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John: New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Lenski, R. C. H. The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966.
McDowell, Edward A. Broadman Bible Commentary: Hebrews to Revelation, Vol. 12. ed. Clifton J. Allen. Nashville: Broadman Press, n.d.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Wescott, B. F. The Epistles of St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
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