WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R. Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson XLVII) 12/20/22

5:6 And Jesus the Messiah was revealed as God’s Son by His baptism in water and shedding His blood on the cross – not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit, who is truth, confirms it with His testimony.

Earlier, John described the Spirit as “the Spirit of truth,”[1] and in the upper room discourse in John’s Gospel, Jesus similarly defines the Spirit three times.[2] Both here in verse six and in John’s Gospel,[3] the role of the Spirit is to bear witness to the truth about Jesus. In the Fourth Gospel, the Spirit’s testifying role mainly bears witness to Jesus against the world. Here in John’s Epistle, the Spirit’s testifying role primarily bears witness to believers concerning the truth of the message about Jesus that they heard from the beginning.[4] John invokes the Spirit as a witness to the reality of the fact that Jesus came by “water and blood” because he says, “the Spirit is truth.” At a minimum, this constitutes a guarantee of the truthfulness of the Spirit as a witness about Jesus. Still, it may also imply that as truth is personified in God elsewhere,[5] it is embodied in the Spirit in this verse.[6]

Believing that Christians can fall away from the faith, Ben Witherington III (1951) notes that some Bible scholars conclude that the Apostle John must be rebutting those who forsook the congregation for the world, who maintained that Jesus only came by water. But were there actual opponents who argued that Jesus came by birth or baptism (water) but not by His death or the Lord’s Supper (blood)? Have not these same commentators argued that the opponents were likely Docetics or even Gnostics, in which case they would deny that Jesus came by physical birth or material sacrament? This whole line of argument commits two mistakes: (1) not realizing that the text is out-of-date considering later docetic or even gnostic controversies; (2) it reads far too much into John’s emphatic rhetoric. John is not refuting anyone here; instead, he is affirming his community’s basic views and values: Jesus came by both water and blood – the meaning of which we need to unravel further at this juncture.[7]

With her crafted spiritual insight, Judith Lieu (1951) comments that the third person term of these confessions, “the one who,” reflects John’s concern to use them as benchmarks for identifying those who truly belong. Already in chapter four, these two patterns were indirectly brought together, at least to the extent of setting “our” specific experience of God’s love in the (Father’s) sending of the Son alongside the affirmation of “the one who acknowledges” Jesus as the Son of God.[8] Despite the apparent demand that Jesus be identified as such, there is only a limited sense of what further ideas or stories, either “Jesus” or “Jesus the Anointed One,” would evoke for John or his readers. Such references as “that one” have shown that they knew something of His life and death[9] but that it was His exemplary or present significance that was of greater impact.[10] This impact, however, would only be effective because Jesus the Anointed One, “having come in the flesh,” is one who unmistakably belongs to the sphere of human experience.[11] [12]

Contextual interpretation specialist Gary M. Burge (1952) calls verse six one of the most perplexing verses in all of John’s letters. Without explanation, John uses a somewhat incomprehensible phrase (“water and blood”), which was indeed known among his followers. Three views attempt to explain the passage. (1) Some believe “water and blood” refer to the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. The chief problem with this view is singular: John’s interest is not in church ritual but in a historical incarnation. The Johannine schism centers on Christology expressed in history, not on worship. (2) A second viewpoint to while Jesus was on the cross, a spear thrust into His side brought forth “blood and water.”[13] In this sense, John may say that the cross is a significant saving event in Jesus’ life.

This might be important if the secessionists claimed that they were without sin and had no need for ritual cleansing.[14] But one difficulty with this view is the closing phrase of verse six, “not … by water only, but by water and blood.” John is making a counterpoint to some claims involving only (or primarily) water. (3) A third view, held by most interpreters, sees water and blood as summing up the totality of Jesus’ incarnational ministry on earth. Jesus’ baptism (water) and crucifixion (blood) frame His ministry: He was declared the Son of God in the Jordan.[15] He obtained even more power and authority through His glorification at Golgotha. Marshall, for instance, understands that John is refuting a Docetic (or pre-Gnostic) tendency that downplayed a complete incarnation. Some were teaching that the heavenly Anointed One descended on the man Jesus at baptism but departed before He was crucified. Hence, John says, Jesus came not only by baptismal water but also through the blood of the cross.[16]

Emphasizing the Apostle John’s call to Christian fellowship, Bruce B. Barton (1954) explains that the one who came by water and blood in this context can be interpreted in one of two ways: (1) The phrase “water and blood” refers to Jesus’ death on the cross, when he was pierced, and blood and water flowed out.[17] John witnessed this piercing and asserted the importance of this occurrence. Cerinthus, a false teacher, and the Docetists denied Jesus’ true and lasting humanity. But John saw Jesus shed his blood and die. (2) The phrase “water and blood” could refer to Jesus’ baptism (water) and crucifixion (blood). The word order corresponds to Jesus’ baptism and death.

These were times in Jesus’ life when His authority was most clearly delineated. Cerinthus also said that Jesus was “the Anointed One” only between his baptism and his death—that is, He was merely human until He was baptized. At that time, “the Anointed One” descended upon him but left him before his death on the cross. But if Jesus died only as a man, he could not have taken upon himself the world’s sins, and Christianity would be an empty religion. Only an act of God could take away the punishment that sin deserves. The Holy Spirit testifies to the truth of Christ’s life and works[18] because the Spirit is truth. The Spirit’s primary role is to reveal the Anointed One to the believers and affirm Christ’s message.[19]

With a classical thinking approach to understanding the scriptures, Bruce G. Schuchard (1958) says verse six is the third formalized instance of an equative clause beginning with an attention-grabbing “this is[20] and marks the beginning of “the one who came by water and blood, Jesus the Anointed One.” There can be little doubt that John used phraseology that was already familiar to his hearers, as represented in his Gospel, where “blood and water[21] flow from the pierced side of Jesus. Today, however, some two millennia later, John’s terminology is not so readily comprehended. “This” again points forward both to the One whose coming, whose person and work, was itself marked at its apex by “water” and “blood,” and to the nominative of apposition,[22]Jesus the Anointed One.” In verse six, the demonstrative “this” referent is personal. The first of three references to “water” and “blood” describes the means and the manner of the coming of the man Jesus, the Anointed Son of God, so that we might live through him.[23] Therefore, the sentence offers a historical reference designed to link the interchangeable designations “the Son of God[24] and “the Anointed One” to “Jesus”[25] in specific circumstances of His earthly ministry as “the coming one.”[26] [27]

Great expositional teacher David Guzik (1961) sees the Apostle John returning to a theme he started at the beginning of the letter: the natural, historical foundation for our trust in Jesus the Anointed One.[28] The emphasis was on what was seen, heard, looked upon, and handled – the real stuff, real people, tangible things. As water and blood are natural, so was the coming of the Son of God, Jesus the Anointed One. 1) Some believe that water speaks of our baptism, and blood speaks of receiving communion, and John writes of how Jesus comes to us in the two Christian sacraments of baptism and communion (Luther and Calvin had this idea). Yet, if this is the case, it doesn’t add up with the historical perspective John had when he wrote: “came by water and blood.” He seems to write of something that happened in the past, not ongoing. 2) Others (such as Augustine) believe the water and blood describe the blood and water which flowed from Jesus’ side when He was stabbed with a spear on the cross. [But this is untenable since the blood (crucifixion) came first and then water (baptism). Why would anyone baptize a dead body?][29] 

Nonetheless, it was an important event to the Apostle John because immediately after this description of water and blood, he added: And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.[30] [31]

An expert in highlighting the crucial part of a biblical message, Marianne Meye Thompson (1964) says that to understand the point being made using “by water and blood,” it will be helpful to examine the use of “water” and “blood” in the Gospel and the epistles of John. While water is mentioned in the epistles only here, several significant references are found in John’s Gospel. John the Baptizer baptizes with water,[32] as does Jesus,[33] and the water symbolizes cleansing. Jesus changes water set aside for the Jewish rites of purification to wine.[34] He speaks of the necessity to be born of “water and the Spirit,[35] where “water and Spirit” probably connotes one idea: cleansing and sanctification by the Holy Spirit.[36] Thus water also symbolizes the gift of the Spirit given by the risen Jesus.[37] Together these references stress the concept of purifying, particularly the purifying effect of God’s Spirit.[38]


[1] 1 John 4:6

[2] John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13

[3] Ibid. 15:26

[4] Cf. 1 John 2:24-27

[5] See Ibid. 5:20; see John 14:6

[6] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary), op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[7] Witherington, Ben III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[8] 1 John 4:10, 14-15

[9] Ibid. 2:6; 3:16

[10] Ibid. 3:3, 5; cf. 2:11

[11] Ibid. 4:2

[12] Lieu, Judith: A New Testament Library, I, II, & III, op. cit., p. 208

[13] John 19:34

[14] 1 John 1:7

[15] John 1:34

[16] Burge, Gary M., The Letters of John (The NIV Application Commentary), op. cit., pp. 201-202

[17] John 19:34-35

[18] Ibid. 15:26; 16:13-15

[19] Burton, Bruce B., 1, 2, & 3 John (Life Application Bible Commentary), op. cit., p. 109

[20] See 1 John 5:3, 4b, 5:6 NIV

[21] John 19:34

[22] Apposition is a relationship between two or more words or phrases in which the two units are grammatically parallel and refer to each other.

[23] 1 John 4:9

[24] Ibid. 5:5, 9b, 10-12

[25] Ibid. 5:1a

[26] Ibid. 4:2; see 4:9-10

[27] Schuchard, Bruce G., Concordia Commentary, 1-3 John, op. cit., pp. 529-530

[28] 1 John 1:1-3

[29] John 19:34

[30] Ibid. 19:35

[31] Guzik, David: Enduring Word, 1,2 & 3 John & Jude, op. cit., pp. 90-92

[32] John 1:26, 31,33

[33] Ibid. 3:22; 4:1-2

[34] Ibid. 2:1-12

[35] Ibid. 3:5, 8

[36] Ezekiel 36:25-27

[37] John 4:13-14; 7:37-39

[38] Thompson, Marianne M., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, 1-3 John, op. cit., pp. 133-134

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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