What does the spirit, water and blood mean in 1 John 5:6-13?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: What does the spirit the water and the blood in 1 John 5:6-13 mean?

Answer: Greetings, friend. I can certainly understand why you asked about 1 John 5:6-13; it is one of the most difficult passages in Scripture to explain! Why so? The spirit, the water and the blood reference many biblical motifs… and it is not at all clear where John was going with this. So, I have some good news, some bad news… and some good news again.

The good news is that the very best Bible scholars, textual critics, commentators and preachers have been studying this passage for centuries… so, we’ve had our “best people on it” (so to speak) for a very long time — and these people have produced a lot of scholarly products. But the bad news is that they don’t agree… and that is a testimony to the true difficulty of this passage. But the second piece of good news is that even though they don’t agree, four ideas keep rising to the top… although in various forms. Now, I’m no scholar… nor do I have any original ideas about that passage… but I can share those four most views with you — and perhaps spur you on to further study.

But before we delve into the particulars, let’s look at the reason that John wrote this epistle in the first place. This statement of purpose informs his entire epistle.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1–3, NIV)

The language of testification permeates 1 John — and why not; that’s its purpose. Jesus Christ entrusted his history, the gospel and the oversite of the New Testament canon to his apostles — people who learned under him — people who spoke with and touched the Lord of glory. This is no small thing. Their intimate testimony to Jesus Christ gives him a documented veracity like no one else in ancient history… and the ancient culture of having two or three witnesses testifying to what is true is not lost on John when he gave us this threefold witness.

This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. (1 John 5:6–8, NIV)

Now, there are distinct types of problems one can encounter when interpreting Bible passages, and one of those categories is called textual. We must ensure that we are using whichever documents are truest to the originals… and the King James version fails us here. So, I do not know which Bible version you use — I use many — but the text struck-out below is not in the best manuscripts. I’m including this to cover the bases because this could affect how a KJV-only reader interprets the passage.

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. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” (1 John 5:6–8, AV)

Even if the above textual problem does not apply to you, that still leaves us with the other category of problem — the interpretive problem… and that’s more “where we live.” So, let’s look at the four main ideas that try to explain what these verses mean.

First, some commentators understand the water and the blood to be symbolic references to the sacraments of baptism and communion. Martin Luther held this view. The typical objection to this view is that if John were referencing the Lord’s Supper via the blood, then there is an obvious hole where a symbol for the body of Christ should be… and that’s too great of a hole for John, some say. Also, the language sounds more like a historical narrative than it does symbolic: John said Jesus came by water and blood — which evokes incidents that occurred in real-time — as opposed to crafting a scene laced with metaphor as when Jesus said, “This is my blood…” (Matthew 26:28).

Second, how could we not link this passage to that scripture (and in the same author’s Gospel, by the way) where we see blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side? (John 19:34-35). Augustine held this view. But detractors point out that the elements are listed in the opposite order in each account, signaling that they have differing purposes. The use of similar words would be incidental rather than God-connected under this objection. Therefore — and following the properly basic use of language — the two passages should not be seen as referencing one another, in spite of their surface commonalities.

Third, this could be referencing the purification rites and the blood sacrifices in the Old Testament. Calvin held this view. Since Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17) — and he satisfied the sacrifices and purification rites through his death — this is a plausible connection. But as in the first segment’s objection, the language here is historical narrative. So, even though Jesus did indeed perform all those fulfillments — and even though these speak deeply to us — they did not speak so directly to John’s immediate audience… which is every author’s main burden. Therefore, I doubt that drawing a picture of Jesus-as-antitype was John’s primary point.

Fourth, the water could be referencing Jesus’ baptism while the blood could be referencing his death on the cross. Tertullian held this view — and this makes the best use of the context. After all, it seems that John was emphasizing both the historical and the extraordinary Jesus. So, what would be better than connecting to historical events which were accompanied by ominous miracles… like God’s voice speaking or the sky darkening?

There are many different views on this portion of Scripture — some of which are variations on the above four — and some of which are totally different but not broadly held. And although it would be interesting to know precisely what John was going for here, knowing this is not a deal-breaker for salvation. You see, no matter what John meant to communicate in this passage, Jesus was indeed all those things he described. As such, he was the only name given under heaven by which humankind can be saved… and that’s always the point to any witness about Jesus.

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12, NIV)

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20170424 What does the spirit, water and blood mean?).

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