And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.

1 JOHN 5:6

When the Holy Spirit is in full control of our lives, He will expect our obedience to the written Word of God.

But it is part of our human problem that we would like to be full of the Spirit and yet go on and do as we please! The Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures will expect obedience to the Scriptures, and if we do not give that obedience, we will quench Him. This Spirit will have obedience—but people do not want to obey the Lord. Everyone of us is as full as he wants to be. Everyone has as much of God as he desires to have. We do not want to meet the conditions.

Let’s use an expensive Cadillac automobile for an illustration. Here is Brother Jones, who would love to drive a Cadillac. But he is not going to buy one, and I will tell you why. He does not want a Cadillac badly enough to be willing to pay the price for it. Certainly he wants it—but he does not want it with that kind of desire—so he is going to continue to drive his old Chevrolet!

Now, it is plain that many people want to be filled with the Spirit, but it is not with that kind of extreme desire that will not be denied. So, we settle for something less! We do say, “Lord, I would like to be full—it would be wonderful!” but we are not willing to proceed to meet His terms. We do not want to pay the price: the Holy Spirit will expect loving obedience to the Word of God![1]

5:6 He says, “This is He who came by water and blood.” A great deal of discussion has arisen over the meaning of these words. Some feel that the water and blood refer to that which flowed from the Savior’s side (John 19:34). Others feel that the water refers to the Spirit of God and that the blood refers to the blood shed on Calvary. Still others believe it is a reference to natural birth, where water and blood are present. We would like to suggest a fourth interpretation that takes particular account of the Gnostic heresy which the apostle is seeking to combat in this Epistle.

As mentioned earlier, the Gnostics believed that Christ came upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him before His passion, namely in the Garden of Gethsemane. In other words, they would say, “The Christ did not die on the cross, but Jesus the man died.” This, of course, robs His work of any atoning value for the sins of others. We suggest that John is using water as an emblem of Jesus’ baptism and blood as a symbol of His atoning death. These were the two terminals of His public ministry. John is saying that Jesus was just as much the Christ when He died on the cross as when He was baptized in the Jordan. This is He who came by water and by blood—not only by water (which the Gnostics would concede), but by water and by blood. It seems that the human heart is perpetually trying to rid itself of the doctrine of the atonement. Men would like to have the Lord Jesus as a perfect Man, the ideal Example, who has given us a marvelous code of morals. But John here insists that the Lord Jesus is not only Perfect Man, but Perfect God also, and that the same One who was baptized in the Jordan River gave His life as a sacrifice for sinners. Men say to Christ, “Come down from the cross and we will believe on You.” If they can just eliminate the cross from their thinking, they will be happy. But John says, “No. You cannot have the Lord Jesus Christ apart from His perfect redemptive work at Calvary.”

It is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. This means that the Holy Spirit of God always testifies to the truth concerning the Lord Jesus which John has been unfolding. He bears witness that Christ came not with water only, but with water and with blood, because this is the truth of God.[2]

6 John now turns from love to proper Christology. Verse 6 opens with the masculine form of houtos, “this one,” which here refers to “Jesus” in the creed at v. 5. The remarks that follow are an attempt to prove John 20:30–31, as restated at 1 John 5:1 and 5, through a series of ad hominem arguments based on the beliefs and traditions of the Johannine community. John’s thesis appears in the phrase “[Jesus] came by water and blood.” The emphasis that Jesus “did not come by water only, but by water and blood” suggests that the Antichrists took the position that “Jesus came by water.” Unfortunately, the historical background of this conflict is far from clear, and 1 John 5:6 has been one of the more controversial NT verses from the very early days of biblical scholarship. Careful consideration will be given to this issue, as its resolution is essential to one’s understanding of 5:6–12.

At least since the days of Ambrose and Augustine (early 4th century AD), some scholars have argued that “water” and “blood” are veiled references to the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. From this perspective, dia and en (both “by” in the NIV) should both be translated “with”: Jesus came “with water and blood,” bringing these sacraments to the church through his incarnation. Support for this position is garnered from John 3:5 (“born of water”) and John 6:56 (“eat my flesh and drink my blood”), both of which are also interpreted as references to the sacraments. This was the dominant interpretation until the 1800s, but very few scholars today find this position convincing. Brown, 575, points out that dia and en do not normally mean “with,” and Culpepper, 101, observes that John uses “water and blood” to “validate the manner of Jesus’ coming,” not to describe something effected or instituted by his ministry. The traditional view would also suggest that the Antichrists accepted baptism (“water only”) but not the Lord’s Supper, a position difficult to comprehend. Further, it is hard to see why John would suddenly make a veiled reference to the sacraments in the midst of a discussion of orthodox Christology. For all of these reasons, modern scholars have largely rejected the sacramental reading of 5:6.

As a second possibility, some scholars suggest that “water” and “blood” together represent a single entity. Perhaps John is stressing the physical incarnation of Jesus, so that “water and blood” is synonymous with “flesh” in 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 7. On the other hand, “water and blood” might refer more specifically to Jesus’ death, for John 19:34 reports that these fluids flowed from the body of the crucified Jesus. Proponents of both versions of this view would argue that the Antichrists denied the physicality of Jesus’ existence, perhaps insisting that his human body was only an apparition.

Most modern commentators resolve the problems of v. 6 by highlighting the connection between water, blood, and Jesus’ “coming” in the first line of the verse. The identification of Christ as “the one who came” (ho elthōn) suggests that “water” and “blood” refer to significant events from the life of the historical Jesus. From this perspective, “water” refers to Jesus’ baptism, the moment when he was first revealed to the world as the “Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29–34), and “blood” refers to Jesus’ sacrificial death (so Dodd, 130; Barker, 350; Marshall, 231; Brown, 578, 596–97; Schnackenburg, 233; Culpepper, 101–2; Rensberger, 132). This would mean that the Antichrists emphasized Jesus’ baptism over his death (“water only”), and a variety of hypotheses have been offered as to how this would fit their theology. Many commentators suggest that the Antichrists subscribed to the doctrines of Cerinthus, a Gnostic teacher who argued that the divine spirit of Christ came on the human Jesus at baptism but abandoned him on the cross (Dodd, 130; Marshall, 232–33; Schnackenburg, 233). The Antichrists, then, would argue that the whole of the incarnation was accomplished at Jesus’ baptism and would deny that his death was of any salvific significance. John counters this claim by stressing that Jesus’ salvific work was completed “in the blood,” i.e., through his death as a sacrifice for sins.

Given John’s usage elsewhere of the term “blood” (haima) exclusively in reference to the physical aspect of human existence and when discussing Jesus in reference to the human physicality of the incarnate Christ (Jn 1:13; 6:54–56; 19:34; see Notes, 1 Jn 5:6), it appears that “blood” is used at 1 John 5:6 to emphasize the physical nature of Jesus, perhaps highlighting his sacrificial death. In John’s view, any confession of Jesus as “Christ” that does not understand his death in this way is inadequate. The Antichrists’ denial of this principle (“water only”) probably reflects their view that Jesus’ death was of little significance, because salvation is granted through some other aspect of his ministry.

What, then, is implied by the phrase “he did not come by water only” (see note)? Could water in the most literal sense be the intended reference here? This possibility may be supported by John 3:5. There Jesus tells Nicodemus that he cannot enter the kingdom unless he is “born of water and spirit.” Birth “of spirit” is apparently equivalent to birth “from above” (anōthen; Jn 3:3, NIV footnote). The opposite state is described in 3:6—“born of flesh” (gegennēmenon ek tēs sarkos, NIV, “flesh gives birth to flesh; GK 4922). It may be that John is suggesting that believers experience two “births,” one of water/flesh and the other of spirit (“from above”). Similar imagery is used at John 1:12–13 to distinguish normal human birth from rebirth as a child of God. The “water” at John 3:5 could thus refer to the flow of water associated with physical childbirth. If “water” is used in the same way at 1 John 5:6, the notion that Jesus “came by water” would emphasize that Jesus experienced normal physical birth. This reading would support the theory that “water and blood” refers to Jesus’ birth and death, the totality of his human incarnation.

While this interpretation is reasonable, it is unlikely for three reasons. First, while there is no doubt that 1 John 5:6 is intended to support John’s incarnational Christology, the language of the verse itself suggests that “water” and “blood” are separate entities. The NIV translates the second sentence in v. 6 as “he did not come by water only, but by water and blood.” The distinction between “water” and “blood” that this reading indicates is even sharper in the Greek text, where John includes the preposition (“in”) and the article (“the”) before both terms: Jesus came not only en tō hydati (“in the water”) but also en tō haimati (“in the blood”). It seems that the Antichrists accepted the proposition that Christ came “by water,” but John finds this confession insufficient. He therefore finds it necessary to distinguish “water” from “blood” in order to highlight the importance of each. Second, John shows very little interest in the birth of Jesus, and the fourth gospel does not include a Christmas story. It seems unlikely, then, that he would allude to Jesus’ birth in such a vague way, or even that Jesus’ birth would play an important part in his Christology. Third, it is difficult to understand why the Antichrists would accept that Jesus came “by water only,” i.e., that he was born a physical human being, while rejecting the notion of his physical death (“by blood”).

Most scholars today believe that 1 John 5:6 uses the term “water” to refer to Jesus’ baptism by John. While this view is reasonable, its primary weakness is evident in Barker’s admission, 350, that “John’s Gospel does not describe the water baptism of Jesus.” While the fourth gospel does include the Baptist’s testimony that the Spirit fell upon Jesus in the form of a dove (Jn 1:29–34), this event is not directly associated with Jesus’ baptism. Indeed, the Johannine Jesus is never specifically baptized at all. Of course, one could argue that the gospel of John avoids direct reference to Jesus’ baptism in response to the Antichrists’ overemphasis on that event or to avoid the implication that John was greater than Jesus. But since there is no clear evidence that baptism was practiced by the Johannine community, it is difficult to conclude that “by water” at 1 John 5:6 refers to Jesus’ baptism.

This third use of “water,” as a symbol of the Spirit, is the most likely reference point for v. 6, for it highlights the essential difference between John and the Antichrists. It has already been observed that the Antichrists apparently claimed that their teachings were inspired by the Spirit (see Introduction; comments at 2:20–21; 4:1–6). These claims were likely based on sayings such as John 14:26 and 16:13, which specifically indicate that the Spirit will lead and guide the church in Jesus’ absence. The Spirit is, in fact, Jesus himself, who continues to be present to the community in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:17–18). In the light of these doctrines, the Antichrists could argue, via John 19:34, that the Christ “came through water” to his people in the form of the Spirit after Jesus’ death. Since they also apparently denigrated the physical aspect of Jesus’ existence (see Introduction), they could further assert that Jesus came “through water only,” i.e., that everything significant about Jesus is revealed in the present through the Spirit.

Against this background 1 John 5:6–12 would represent a brief summary of and response to the Antichrists’ doctrine. Notably, the absence of hoti in v. 6 suggests that John does not intend to quote the Antichrists or to counter their teaching with a specific creed. While not denying the presence and power of the Spirit, John insists that Jesus also came “in the blood,” referring to his human physicality. In John’s view, the Spirit only reminds the community of what the human Jesus has already taught, without revealing new information (Jn 14:26; see comment at 1 Jn 4:2–3). Throughout the epistle John has pitted himself against the Antichrists on the basis that his teachings are based on an actual observation of Jesus’ earthly ministry (see comments at 1:1–3; 4:6, 14–15). John therefore asserts that no teaching can proceed directly from the Spirit (“water”) unless it also takes into account the community’s Jesus tradition, which supports John’s own orthodox views about Jesus’ humanity (“blood”). Christ, then, came to the community not only “by water,” i.e., not only through individual revelations of the Spirit; Christ also came to the community “by blood,” i.e., through the established traditions about Jesus’ life and death, which are based on John’s “witness.”

The reading that “water” represents the Spirit while “blood” represents Jesus’ human life and death explains John’s sudden introduction of the Spirit in the last phrase of v. 6, which the NIV translates, “And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.” The NIV is correct to suggest that pneuma here refers specifically to the Paraclete and is therefore to be capitalized. At the same time, however, this translation obscures the logic of the phrase by reading hoti causally: the Spirit testifies because the Spirit is truth. Marshall, 234 n.12, who also supports the causal reading, recognizes this problem and attempts to account for it by explaining that “John must mean that the Spirit is able to bear (true) witness because the Spirit is truth.” If this is correct, however, it is more likely that hoti should be taken as the introduction to a creed or community slogan about the Paraclete: “The Spirit is the one who witnesses; ‘the Spirit is the truth.’ ” The second phrase thus supports the value of the Spirit’s witness by insisting that the Spirit supports the truth, so that the community slogan would serve to strengthen the significance of the Spirit’s witness. In John’s mind this means that, even if Christ continues to come to the community via the Spirit, the teachings of the Spirit will be in complete harmony with the “truth,” the orthodox Jesus tradition that the community has supported all along.

Commentators are divided on the means by which the Spirit gives this “testimony” to the church. Marshall, 234, highlighting John’s use of the present tense (“the Spirit testifies”), suggests that “the Spirit presently testifies to us, in our inward hearts or through the preaching of the Word.” Dodd, 129, extending the theory that “water” refers to Jesus’ baptism, suggests that the Spirit’s “witness” represents the descent of the Spirit on Jesus at baptism as a “divine sign.” This witness continues into the present life of the church, where the activity of the Spirit primarily takes the form of “inspired or prophetic utterance … by which the Church proclaimed and confirmed the truth of the Gospel.” The Spirit thus “witnesses” to Jesus’ sonship by preserving the church’s traditions about his life and baptism. Rensberger, 132–33, believes that the Spirit’s “witness” consists of nothing more than the community’s tradition about Jesus’ death, specifically passages such as John 19:34–35 that stress the “blood.” Since “water” seems to represent the Spirit here, and since John generally appeals to community tradition when making Christological points, Rensberger’s reading is the most accurate. John has already established that every person speaking by God’s Spirit will confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2), and now he simply reaffirms that assertion in the context of the debate over “water and blood.” This counters the Antichrists on their own ground, for the very Spirit they claim as their inspiration supports John’s view rather than their own.[3]

5:6 water and blood. Water and the blood constitute external, objective witnesses to who Jesus Christ is. They refer to Jesus’ baptism (water) and death (blood). John combats the dualism of false teachers who asserted that “Christ-spirit” departed from the man Jesus just prior to His death on the cross (see Introduction: Background and Setting). John writes to show that God has given testimony to the deity of Jesus through both His baptism and death. testifies. Both the verb “testifies” and the noun “testimony” come from the same Gr. word and are used a total of 9 times in this section. The basic meaning is “someone who has personal and immediate knowledge of something.” the Spirit is the truth. John no longer stresses apostolic testimony (1:1–4; 4:14) but writes of the testimony of God that comes through the Holy Spirit. Since the Spirit of God cannot lie, His testimony is sure.[4]

5:6 Water most likely refers to Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Blood signifies Christ’s atoning death on the cross. the Spirit is the one who testifies. The structure of the verse emphasizes that it is the characteristic work of the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the fact that Christ came (see v. 6a). It is the inward work of the Spirit in the heart of the believers to convict of sin and to open their eyes to see the truth of who Christ is and to understand the meaning of his atoning death for their sins (cf. 5:10). Likewise, the indwelling presence of the Spirit is given to teach believers the truth of God’s Word and to abide in them (2:27; 4:13).[5]

5:6 water and blood The reference to water possibly is meant to allude to Jesus’ baptism, or perhaps to the anointing of God’s Spirit (Matt 3:13–17; John 1:32–34). The mention of blood might allude to Jesus’ death (John 19:28–34).

The purpose of John’s symbolism here is debated, but most likely he wanted to assert that Jesus was genuinely human—not human in appearance only. Taken together, the references to water and blood encapsulate the ministry of Jesus, from its beginning at His baptism to His sacrificial death on the cross. For John, confessing that Jesus is the Son of God meant confessing Him as the anointed one of God—the Christ, who truly suffered and died on the cross.[6]

5:6 by water and blood. Some suggest that “water” refers to the baptism of Jesus and “blood” to the crucifixion. This is unlikely, since John in his gospel does not directly recount the baptism of Jesus. Others suggest that “water and blood” refers to the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is also unlikely, since John does not recount the institution of the sacraments in his gospel. The difficult saying of this verse probably reflects John 19:34. In John’s gospel, the testimony God bears to Jesus His Son is a key theme. The blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side after His death attested to the reality of His death; the wound later confirmed the reality of His bodily resurrection (John 20:20, 25–27). Both the death and the resurrection were denied by the Docetists, who denied the humanity of Christ (4:2). The Spirit “testifies” to the truth of Jesus’ incarnation as the divine Christ.[7]

[1] Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2323). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 491–494). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (1 Jn 5:6). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[5] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2436). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[6] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (1 Jn 5:6). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[7] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2274). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.

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