1 John 5:6-8 (continued)
In the previous note, I argued that the expression “in/through water and blood” in 1 Jn 5:6 refers to two aspects of Jesus’ humanity (that is, his real humanity, against a “docetic” view of Christ): (1) his human birth and life, and (2) his sacrificial death (involving the shedding of blood). Both of these appear together at the time of his death (“blood and water”, Jn 19:34), and may be prefigured (i.e. water and wine [= blood]) in the episode at Cana at the beginning of his earthly ministry (2:1-11). It is Jesus’ very life (water and blood) which is poured out on behalf of humankind. If this interpretation is correct, then we must ask exactly how the Spirit relates to these two aspects, since, in vv. 6b-8, the Spirit is joined to “water” and “blood” to form a triad.
Let us first consider how this is introduced by the author:
“This is the (one) coming through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and in blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness (of this), (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth.” (v. 6)
There are two phrases involved. The first is:
“the Spirit is the (one) giving witness”
to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin to\ marturou=n
The basic meaning of this is clear enough: the Spirit gives witness (to believers) of Jesus’ coming “in/through water and blood”—i.e. of his real human life and sacrificial death. It may seem a bit strange for us today that there would be Christians who might deny or object to Jesus Christ as a real flesh-and-blood human being. In modern times, the opposite is more often the case—many people accept Jesus’ humanity and death on the cross, but object to the idea that he was divine or the “Son of God” in any real sense. The context of 1 John suggests a Christian setting which espoused a “high” Christology—i.e., Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God—but which was a distance removed from any memory of Jesus’ actual earthly life and ministry. Thus Johannine Christians could easily confess Jesus as the “Son of God” but have genuine doubts or questions about whether, or to what extent, he was actually a human being like us. The author of the letter goes out of his way, at several points, to emphasize this point. We see it already in the opening verses (1:1ff), where he speaks of Jesus as the “word of Life” which “we” (i.e. the apostles or an earlier generation of believers) have heard, seen with eyes, felt with hands, etc—Jesus was a real human being who walked and lived among us. Most scholars regard the Johannine Letters as addressed to a later (second or third) generation of Christians, dated c. 90-100 A.D., and this is likely to be close to the mark.
An important point in the Last Discourse is that the Spirit/Paraclete will teach and instruct believers, giving witness of things both to them and through them (14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13-15); in particular, 15:26f states:
“…that one [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will give witness about me, and you also will give witness…”
Thus the first statement about the Spirit in 1 Jn 5:6 is fully in accord with the view of the Spirit presented in the Gospel, and is confirmed again in 2:26-27, with the idea that the Spirit (“the anointing”) instructs believers in all things. In the view of the author, true believers will hold a correct view of Jesus because they hold the Spirit who gives true witness about Jesus. This leads to the second statement:
“(in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth”
o%ti to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia
In the Gospel, this is expressed by the title “Spirit of Truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13) and also in 1 Jn 4:6. The Spirit is also associated closely with Truth in Jn 4:23-24, and also with the indwelling word/presence of God in 1 Jn 1:8; 2:4, etc. That Jesus and God the Father also also identified as Truth (Jn 1:14, 17; 14:6; 18:37, etc) simply confirms the basic Johannine idea that the Spirit is both the Spirit of God the Father and of Jesus (the Son). Interestingly, this statement in 1 Jn 5:6b seems to provide a belated answer to the question by Pilate in Jn 18:38:
- Question: “What is (the) truth?”
- Answer: “The Spirit is (the) Truth”
In the immediate context of the letter, however, the emphasis is on the truthfulness of the Spirit’s witness. Since the Spirit is Truth itself, it/he can only speak the truth, as indicated by Jesus in Jn 16:33: “…he will lead the way for you in all truth”.
While it might seem that the Spirit is sufficient to give witness for believers, in verses 7-8 the author of the letter turns to the ancient legal principle that testimony in a court of law must be confirmed by at least two witnesses (i.e. two or three witnesses). This is expressed a number of times in the Old Testament Law (cf. Deut 19:15, etc), and appears in the Johannine discourses of Jesus (5:30-46; 8:16-19). In Jn 5:30ff, Jesus cites four different sources of testimony that give witness about his identity (as the Son sent by the Father). Here the author of the letter cites three:
“(so) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood—and the three are (together) into one.” (vv. 7-8)
This thematic formula of three-in-one certainly helps explain the trinitarian addition, found in some Latin (Vulgate) manuscripts, which, inappropriately, made its way into the 16th/17th century “Textus Receptus” editions of the New Testament (see spec. the KJV of vv. 7-8). It is, however, clearly a secondary addition (interpolation), as virtually all today commentators agree. We must avoid reading later theological concepts (from Nicene orthodoxy, etc) into the passage, and focus instead on the thought-world of the author and the (Johannine) congregations whom he is addressing. The main question is: how exactly does the Spirit relate to the “water” and “blood” which, as I have argued, symbolize the human life (and sacrificial death) of Jesus. There are are several avenues to explore:
- The relationship of the Spirit to Jesus in the Johannine Gospel and Letters
- The connection between the Spirit and water, especially as a symbol of birth and life for those who trust in Jesus
- The connection between the Spirit and the death (i.e. blood) of Jesus