Water & Blood
Commentary on 1 John 5:6-12
If we then look carefully at verses 6-12, we note that the entire passage centers on Jesus Christ, and on the matter of who he is. That much is clear, and to it we shall return. What is not clear is what John means by water and blood. Many scholars and interpreters feel that John is using phrases known to his readers, but not to us, and that therefore their meaning simply cannot be recovered. It is as if someone two thousand years from now were to read a document from the year 2008, and find in it, without any further explanation, the words, “Yes, we can.” That future reader would understand the meaning of each of those words, but would find it impossible to know why they suddenly appear in the document, or what their meaning was to readers in 2008.
Other interpreters, however, offer a variety of views, usually being careful not to claim that they fully understand what John has in mind in writing these words. And, to complicate matters, there is the question of the relationship between what John says here and what the Gospel of John says, that at the crucifixion of Jesus, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out” (Jn 19:34).
One possibility is that John is rejecting the views of those who, because they deemed matter to be evil, claimed that Jesus did not have a real body, and that he was not truly born. Others held that Jesus was the human who was born of Mary, but that Christ did not come upon Jesus until his bap¬tism, where he was declared to be the Son of God. It may well be that John stresses “the water and the blood” as a means to counteract such notions. In this case, coming “by water and blood” may be a very physical way of referring to birth, and therefore rejecting the notion that Jesus was not born as other humans are born, with all the materiality involved in birth itself. John then declares further that Jesus did not come by water alone, but by both water and blood.
This could be a way of rejecting the notion that the Son of God came only at his baptism—that is, by the water—and a way of insisting on his coming as the Son of God from the very beginning of his human life—by the water and the blood. Or, water may refer to his birth, and blood to his death. The sentence that follows, that “the Spirit is the one that testifies,” may well mean that what the Spirit does at the baptism of Jesus is to testify as to who Jesus is, and not—as John’s opponents would claim—to make him Son of God. Then, when it comes to who Jesus is—both fully human and the Son of God by nature, from his very birth—there are three that testify: “the Spirit, and the water, and the blood.” And John seals the matter by declaring that “these three agree.”
All of this was done by divine agency, and therefore this testimony, which is not a purely human declaration, but “the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son,” is to be believed, and the human theories as to how Jesus was born—or not born—and about his becoming the Son of God at his baptism are void.
Another possibility, which does not exclude the former, is that here John is turning to the liturgical setting in which his letter is to be read. As was pointed out in the Introduction, this letter was most likely written to be read at a gathering of the community for worship. During the first part of such gatherings, Scripture was read and commented upon. At first, this was obviously the Hebrew Scriptures—for at the time there was no New Testament.
During this first period of gathering, letters and communication from other churches and church leaders were also read. It was through this repeated reading, and through a process of selection as to what documents should be read in worship, that the New Testament was eventually formed. At the time when John is writing, his letter would be read in the worship service, to be followed by the second part of the service, which was the celebration of communion. Among other Johannine literature, there is no doubt that Revelation was written to be read in such a setting, for much of its last chapter uses words that were used in communion.
The Fourth Gospel may well have been written so that sections of it could be read in the worship of the church, in preparation for communion. In the case of the First Epistle of John, there is no reference to communion, and very little to the worship of the church. But now, at the end of the letter, John begins to turn the attention of his readers to what will follow, the celebration of communion.
For the early church, there were two central events through which their Lord came to believers, baptism and communion—the water and the blood. Through these two, as well as through the life of the church, the Spirit is present in the church. Thus the Spirit is the one who testifies; but the water—baptism—and the blood—communion—also testify. If this is the meaning of water and blood, it would also indicate that when the Gospel of John declares that “water and blood” came out of Jesus’ wounded side, this is a reference to both baptism and communion flowing from the death of Jesus.
In any case, the difficulties connected with the exact meaning of water and blood should not obscure the central thrust of the passage, which is the declaration as to who Jesus is. It is he whom the church confesses, and it is in response to the love of God manifested in him that the church in turn practices love. Once again, this connection between confessing the truth and doing the truth, between believing and acting, is central to the entire Epistle.