“For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:7-8).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Is pure doctrine so important that it is worth arguing about? Worth ruffling a few feathers? Worth enduring suffering for? St. John certainly thought so. His first epistle, from which comes our text, is wholly and vigorously polemical, aimed at false teachers and the heresies they were putting forth.
Before the end of the 1st century AD, false teachers had already arisen within the Church. “They went out from us,” John writes, “but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). These false teachers had apparently established themselves as a separate community. They continued to make vigorous propaganda for their cause (2 John 7, 10), an early form of Gnosticism, which constituted a threat to the Church (1 John 2:27; 3:7).
They were a real threat, for they were very “religious” men. They were “spiritual” men and claimed the prophetic authority of the Holy Spirit for their teaching (1 John 4:1). They cultivated a high and solemn sort of piety, a piety that claimed immediate communion with God and operated with slogans such as “I know Him,” “I abide in Him,” “I am in the Light” (1 John 2:4, 6, 9), and “I love God” (1 John 4:20). They likely felt themselves, and professed themselves, to be a new elite in Christendom, the “next level of Christian.”
It was no wonder that they deceived many and that many who remained in the Church were perhaps not fully convinced that the Church had been in the right when it separated itself from them. Or there might well have been some who were still secretly attracted to this brilliant new theology.
The false teachers deceived many, but they did not deceive John. The eyes that had seen the Word of life in the flesh (1 John 1:1) saw these men for what they were. They were, in John’s clear vision, not prophets of God, but false prophets (1 John 4:1). Their words were inspired not by the Spirit of truth, but by their spirit of error (1 John 4:6). They were not the Christ’s, but the very embodiment of the Antichrist, the spirit of the Antichrist (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3), who inspires the lie.
What was this lie? They denied the full humanity of the Christ. They denied that Jesus, the man in history, was the Christ, the Son of God (1 John 2:22; 4:3), who had come “in the flesh” (1 John 4:2). We get a hint of how far this denial went in the words of John that state positively the significance of the Christ who came in the flesh: “This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood” (1 John 5:6).
These words are in themselves somewhat obscure, but they become clearer against the background of the heresy of Cerinthus and his followers, of which Irenaeus has left us a description (ANF 1:352). Cerinthus taught that Jesus was a man among men, a superior man but still merely a man, the Son of Joseph and Mary. At His Baptism, the heavenly “Christ” descended upon Him in the form of a dove and enabled Him to reveal the hitherto unknown God and to perform miracles. At His Passion, however, “the heavenly Christ” again left Jesus, and only Jesus the man suffered and died. In other words, the Christ came “by water” (the Baptism of Jesus), but did not come “by blood” (the Passion and death of Jesus).
With this false theology, the cross of Jesus, the shed blood of the Son of God, which the apostolic witness celebrated as the crown and culmination of the ministry of Christ, was thus ignored or relegated to the background. The blood of Jesus, the Son of God, was no longer the blood that “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Where the cross is not taken seriously, sin is no longer taken seriously. Men, whose proud piety centers in their assumed knowledge of God and ignore the cross in which God has revealed Himself as both the Judge of sinful man and the Forgiver of sinners, can think of sin as something that need not concern them. They can say, “We have not sinned,” and thus make a liar out of God, who has in the cross declared all people have sinned (1 John 1:8, 10) and has in the cross given His Son as the “propitiation… for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Such a piety is more palatable to this world than the truth. The offense of the cross is gone, and the lives of Christians are no longer a walking indictment of the sins of the world. The world that does not recognize the children of God (1 John 3:1), but rather hates them (1 John 3:13), can come to terms with these men and with the Christ whom they proclaim, because He is a toothless lion, not much different than the next holy man or cult leader or self-help guru. St. John says of these heretics: “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5).
Over against these men and their teaching, John asserts, the full reality of the incarnation, the eternal Word becoming flesh, the fact that life and communion with God are to be found in Jesus, the Christ, who came and died for people’s sin in the flesh, or they will not be found at all. John meets the danger that threatens the Church by a powerfully positive restatement of what the Christian life really is, a passionate appeal to recognize in action the full measure of the gift and the full extent of the claim of that grace of God which has given us fellowship with the Father and with the Son.
John had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, His Passion, death, and resurrection, and ascension. In the introduction to his first epistle, John tells us how he had seen and handled and touched the body of the resurrected Christ, and that life is found only in fellowship with Jesus Christ.
But notice how the apostle does not rely solely upon his own testimony: “This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:6-8).
Because so much of the way God deals with people is subtle and indirect, because so much of our life with God is hidden (Colossians 3:3), and because Satan and his false teachers seek to lead us astray, we believers are vulnerable to doubts and misbelief. Amid competing viewpoints, how can you tell who is telling the truth? How can anybody be sure of anything about God?
The Lord Himself long ago established for the Israelite courts a procedure for determining the truth (Deuteronomy 17:16; 19:15). The procedure was to find two or three objective witnesses besides the plaintiff. Jesus Himself used that format as He established His claim as the Savior before a skeptical crowd of His countrymen: “If I alone bear witness about Myself, My testimony is not deemed true. There is another who bears witness about Me, and I know that the testimony that be bears about Me is true” (John 5:31-32). Jesus cites John the Baptist as His witness, and then cites His heavenly Father, whose booming voice at the time of His Baptism publicly affirmed Jesus as His beloved Son.
As to what specifically John means by “the Spirit and the water and the blood,” there are three interesting interpretations. Each has some merit, and I think the full answer is in a combination of the three. Let’s consider them briefly.
For many centuries, going back at least to Saint Augustine in the 5th century, many Christians assumed that “water and blood” was an allusion to the separated fluids that ran from the pierced side of the crucified Savior. John was right there by the cross at the time, and in his Gospel account, he immediately points to those separated fluids as proof that Jesus Christ was truly dead, proof that the sacrifice for the world’s sins had truly been made. He wrote: “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of His bones will be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on Him whom they have pierced’” (John 19:35–37).
John’s point in our verse, then, is to contradict the false teachers’ claim either that the death of Christ never happened or that it was only the death of Jesus but not the death of the heavenly “Christ” that happened on the cross.
A second possibility appeals to many commentators. They understand the words water and blood to refer to the beginning and ending of Jesus’ public ministry. Cerinthus and the other gnostic teachers denied the two natures of Christ, claiming that the “Christ” from heaven simply came down and rested on the man Jesus during His teaching ministry. They were more interested in Jesus as a teacher of morality than as the personal sacrifice of God’s Son for the sins of the world.
John’s references to water, then, would be to Jesus’ Baptism. At the Jordan, the Father’s voice boomed out His authentication of Jesus’ identity as His Son and His approval of the Son’s mission. The reference to blood would be to the crucifixion, where the words of Jesus and signs and wonders that occurred at His death convinced even a Roman military officer and his execution detachment: “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
Another interesting and scriptural possibility for the meaning of blood, water, and Spirit is that they are references to the means of grace—Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word of God. These three things, after all, are our lifeline to Christ. This is how we know. The Scriptures are the foundation for everything we know about God. They alone bear sure witness to the creation, fall, promises, incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. What better way to drive doubt from our hearts than to go to the Word!
The sacraments personalize the Gospel in a most wondrous way. There is no mistaking, who is receiving God’s grace when the water of rebirth and renewal splashes on someone’s head in God’s triune name. There is no mistaking for whom God’s love and forgiveness are intended when the body and blood of the Lord Himself are placed right in someone’s mouth.
Do you see why all this is important? Why allowing this error to gain traction would be so deadly to your faith? Because if it was not Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God incarnate, both true God and true man, all the way from His birth to His Baptism to His suffering and death to His resurrection and ascension—if it is not this one and the same Jesus who is your Savior, then you have no Savior!
If Jesus were just a man—a really righteous man perhaps, who suffered and died on the cross—well, good for Him, maybe God would reward Him. But that wouldn’t do you any good. On the other hand, if Jesus is indeed the very Son of God, and He sheds His holy blood for you and for all the other sinners of the world—well, then His suffering and death have infinite value, sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world and to win your forgiveness and thus your eternal life.
Which He does. And because He has, you are covered and cleansed by Jesus’ holy blood. Indeed, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.