Saturday Series: 1 John 5:5-12

1 John 5:5-12

These recent studies on 1 John have alternated, along with the letter, between the themes of love (agápe) and trust (pístis), which represent the two components of the great command for believers (3:23-24). The section in 3:11-24 dealt with love, followed by an extensive dual-exposition in 4:7-5:4 (discussed in the previous two studies). In 4:1-6, the subject was trust in Jesus, and a similar dual-exposition follows in 5:5-12. In the earlier study on 4:1-6, we saw how, in the author’s mind, the duty (or command) to trust in Jesus was being violated by those who had separated from the Community–they held a view of Jesus that differed from the Christology of the Community, as expressed in the Johannine Gospel. This was first introduced in 2:18-27, where it was clear that, for the author, the great evil of these ‘false’ believers involved their Christology. Even so, it was never specified as to what, precisely, the ‘antichrist’ pseudo-believers held regarding Jesus that made them so dangerous for the Community. In 2:22, it was to be inferred that they refused to accept Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah), essentially denying Jesus as the Son (of God) as well. However, it is extremely unlikely that the ‘false’ believers denied that Jesus was either the Messiah or Son of God. Something about their belief regarding Jesus was, for the author, tantamount to denying the very person of Christ.

In 4:1-6, the nature of this Christological view was clarified: it involved a denial, or refusal to accept, that Jesus the Anointed One had come in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lythóta, v. 2). I noted how this appears to be similar to the Docetic Christology held by certain so-called Gnostics—i.e., a belief that Jesus the Son of God only seemed to be a real flesh and blood human being during his time on earth. Such Docetism tends to derive from a strong dualistic worldview, such as certainly would characterize much gnostic (and Gnostic) thought. The fundamental incompatibility between the realm of the Divine and the material world made it hard for many Gnostics to accept that the Son of God could actually become part of the fallen material world (i.e. as a real human being). Ignatius of Antioch, writing to believers in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Tralles, attacked a “Docetic” view of Christ similar to that of the later Gnostics (Ephesians 7:2; Smyrneans 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:1-2; 5:2; Trallians 9:1-2; 10:1). The location of the Johannine congregations, and provenance of the writings, is often thought to be in the same region of Asia Minor (confirming the tradition that connected the apostle of John with Ephesus). Moreover, Ignatius was probably writing (c. 110 A.D.) not all that long after 1 John itself was written (90’s A.D.?), and it is possible that he is addressing some of the same issues (compare Smyrneans 5:2 with 1 John 4:2; cf. also the Epistle of Polycarp 7:1).

However, in my view, the Christology of the ‘false’ believers attacked by the author of 1 John was not Docetic per se, and this is confirmed in 5:5-12, where the true nature of the ‘antichrist’ understanding of Jesus is finally made clear. By piecing the evidence from 2:18-27, 4:16, and 5:5-12 together, with a little detective work, we can reconstruct (partially) the Christology of the ‘false’ believers—at least, the aspect of it which was deemed so objectionable to the author of 1 John. This falls under the heading of historical criticism.

Verse 5

“[And] who is the (one) being victorious over the world, if not [i.e. except] the (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Son of God?”

This rhetorical question is transitional, picking up from the concluding statement of the previous section (v. 4), identifying the trust (pístis) of the true believer, i.e. trust in Jesus, as the thing which brings victory (vb nikáœ) over the evil and darkness of the world. That declaration leads here into the section on trust in Jesus, once again identifying the true believer with this component of the great command by the use of the articular participle (“the [one] trusting”)—i.e. trust characterizes the believer. Of course, for the author, “trust” entails a correct understanding of just who Jesus is and what he did, that it is to say, the content of this trust is Christological.

Verse 6

“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood, Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in water only, but in water and blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the truth.”

This is the key verse for a proper understanding of the ‘antichrist’ view of Jesus. Unfortunately, a precise interpretation remains difficult. The author actually states the matter rather clearly, in terms that doubtless would have been immediately evident to many of his readers. In referring to Jesus as “having come through water and blood”, the author was making a definitive Christological statement. The interpretive difficulty for us is in expounding the phrase “in water and blood” which serves as a shorthand for a more complex theological frame of reference. That Christians in the first centuries had the same sort of difficulties in explaining it would seem to be evident by the notable textual variants; instead of “(having come) through water and blood”, there are four main variants, all of which include “(the) Spirit”:

    • “through water and blood and spirit” (di’ hydatos kai haimatos kai pneumatos)
    • “through water and spirit and blood” (di’ hydatos kai pneumatos kai haimatos)
    • “through water and (the) Spirit” (di’ hydatos kai pneumatos)
    • “through water and blood and the Holy Spirit

The first variant above is the one with the best manuscript and versional support. The inclusion of the “Spirit”, forming a triad, is doubtless influenced by what follows in vv. 7-8; however, in my view, copyists who introduced such changes did not understand at all the point the author was making. Special emphasis is given to the blood, meaning that, apparently, the ‘false’ believers did accept that Jesus came in (or through) water. But what does it mean to say that Jesus came “in water” or “through water”. There does not seem to be any real difference here between the preposition en (“in”) or dia (“through”)—they both express the manner in which Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, i.e. as a human being. Commentators have debated the significance of water here, but I believe that it refers primarily, and fundamentally, to Jesus’ birth. The closest parallel to this use of water-imagery is in the famous Nicodemus episode in the Gospel (Jn 3:1-14ff). Water is contrasted with the Spirit, in the context of the idea of a person’s birth. The key statement by Jesus is in verse 5:

“…if (one) does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

In verse 6, the contrast shifts from water/Spirit to flesh/Spirit, indicating that being “born out of water” is essentially the same thing as a person’s fleshly (i.e. physical human) birth. The point is that a person needs to be born of the Spirit (from above) in addition to one’s normal physical birth. If the ‘false’ believers of 1 John accepted Jesus’ physical birth as a human being, then their Christology was not Docetic as such. Where, then, was the problem or error in their belief? It is centered on a failure to accept that Jesus also came “in blood” / “through blood”. If “water” refers to Jesus’ birth, then “blood” most almost certainly refers to his death. There are three other Johannine passages where blood (haíma) is mentioned, and they all relate specifically to the sacrificial death of Jesus (Jn 6:53-58; 19:34; 1 Jn 1:7). Moreover, the joining of “water and blood” is of great importance in the Passion narrative, a physical (and historical) detail to which the author imports considerable theological significance (Jn 19:34-35ff).

Thus, it would be fair to infer that, while the ‘false’ believers of 1 John accepted the human birth of Jesus, they somehow refused to accept that he endured a normal human death, and that this constituted their fundamental error. If so, the basis for their view may be found in the Gospel narrative itself. In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, the Johannine Passion narrative contains little or no “passion”, no obvious signs of human suffering. There is no scene of anguish in the garden; instead, Jesus is depicted as fully in control at every moment, even speaking with such authority that those coming to arrest him cower and fall back (18:4-9). The Johannine narrative does include mention of Jesus’ being whipped and mocked by the soldiers (19:1-5), but that brief episode is flanked by extensive dialogues between Jesus and Pilate in which Jesus essentially declares his divine identity; by comparison, in the Synoptics, he says almost nothing before Pilate. Finally, on the cross, there is no sign of suffering, no mention of taunting by the crowds, no cry of anguish or feeling of being abandoned by God. Instead, Jesus appears calm and fully in control; at the end, instead of letting out a death-cry, he states “it has been completed”, and releases his spirit (19:30). Given this Gospel portrait, it would be understandable for a Johannine Christian to minimize or relativize the suffering and death of Jesus. It may also explain why the Gospel writer places such importance on the detail of the water and blood that come out of Jesus’ side (19:34-35), since it serves to confirm the concrete physical reality of his death.

It may also be that the ‘false’ Johannine believers downplayed the significance of Jesus’ death in relation to our salvation and the coming of the Spirit. Again the detail of Jn 19:34 may indicate the importance of “water and blood” in this regard. Jesus’ sacrificial death completed his saving work on earth. His death effectively gives life to those who partake in it (i.e. “drink his blood”, 6:53ff), and releases the Spirit (19:30, cp. 20:22) for those who believe. The Spirit itself gives witness to the truth of the “water and blood” —the reality of who Jesus is and what his work on earth accomplished. The introduction of the Spirit here in v. 6b is a subtle way of stating that, if a person denies the true significance of Jesus’ death, he/she denies the Spirit, and, as a result, cannot be a true believer who is united to God and Christ through the Spirit.

Verses 7-8

“(For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are into the one.”

The “Textus Receptus” edition of the Greek New Testament mistakenly introduced an expanded form of these two verses, based on the reading of a handful of late manuscripts and Latin witnesses; the expanded form reads:

“(For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And the (one)s giving witness on earth are three—the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are into the one.”

The trinitarian insertion is secondary, and quite foreign to 1 John, as nearly all commentators today would admit. It is another example of how later readers and copyists so poorly understood the nuances of the author’s line of argument, so as to be led astray by facile similarities (the ‘three in one’ phrasing) and to introduce a trinitarian formula where it does not belong. The main point, as noted above, is that, for true believers, the Spirit confirms what one already believes and experiences regarding the “water and blood” of Jesus’ incarnate life and death. Indeed, it is by the Spirit’s witness that we are able to believe this about Jesus; to deny the significance of Jesus’ sacrificial death is to deny the witness of the Spirit.

What then of the curious phrase “and the three are into the one”? If it has nothing to do with the Trinity (as indeed it does not), what exactly is the author trying to say? I would interpret it as follows:

The expression “water and blood” represents two aspects of a single witness—involving the life and (life-giving) death of Jesus. To this, the Spirit becomes a third component. The presence and work of the Spirit allows people to accept the truth of who Jesus was and what he did, and further confirms this truth in and among believers. Thus, numerically, there are “three” components, but a single witness, a single truth—three leading and directing into one, for one purpose. While this does not refer to the Trinity, it does relate to a certain kind of theological triad; I have previously offered a simple diagram which illustrates this Johannine triad:

Clearly the Spirit is at the center of this triadic relationship.

Verses 9-12

“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; (and it is) that this is the witness of God that He has given witness to about His Son. The (one) trusting in the Son of God holds the witness in himself; the (one) not trusting God has made Him (to be) false, (in) that he has not trusted in the witness that God has given witness to about His Son. And this is the witness: that God gave to us (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life], and this Life is in His Son. The (one) holding the Son holds the Life, and the (one) not holding the Son of God does not hold the Life.”

This is a wonderful example of the repetitive Johannine style which belies a clear and careful structure. There are many such examples in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus, but also here in 1 John. Note how the related noun and verb martyría (“witness”) and martyréœ (“give witness”) are used repeatedly (8 times). Also consider how the conjunctive particle hóti (“that”) is variously used, which makes precise translation and interpretation a bit of a challenge. There is actually a clear parallelism in this passage which, while not so obvious in typical English translations, is immediately apparent in the Greek (which I render quite literally above). Note the structure:

    • Statement about the witness (martyría) of God: that it is about His Son (v. 9)
      • Identification of the believer as one trusting in the witness (v. 10)
    • Statement about the witness of God: that it is in His Son (v. 11)
      • Identification of the believer as one holding the witness [the Son] (v. 12)

Here is how this structure is played out in the Greek:

    • haút¢ estín h¢ martyría tou theoú…perí tou huioú autoú (v. 9)
      “this is the witness of God…about His Son”
      • ho pisteúœn eis ton huión tou theoú échei t¢n martyrían (v. 10)
        “the one trusting in the Son of God holds this witness…”
    • haút¢ estín h¢ martyría …h¢ zœ¢¡ en tœ huiœ¡ autoú estin (v. 11)
      “this is the witness …the Life is in His Son”
      • ho échœn ton huión échei t¢n zœ¢¡n (v. 12)
        “the one holding the Son holds the Life…”

The overall thrust of this line of argument is that trust in Jesus is fundamentally tied to one’s identity as a true believer, one who “holds” the Life of God through the presence of the Spirit. Those who refuse to accept the truth of who Jesus was effectively deny both the Gospel message (about the Son) and the witness of the Spirit (the abiding presence of the Son). This, in turn, is tantamount to a denial of God, since He is the one who ultimately gives this witness. If we consider the passage again from the standpoint of its historical background, then the argument is that the Johannine Christians who denied the reality of Jesus’ death, and/or its significance, were effectively denying the Gospel message, the witness of the Spirit, and even God Himself. Almost certainly these ‘false’ believers, whoever they were, would not at all characterize themselves this way; but, from the standpoint of the author of 1 John, the matter was clear: they could not be true believers, but, instead, were a manifestation of “antichrist” (being against Christ). We will discuss the ramifications of this further when we come to study 2 and 3 John.

Next week, the focus will turn again to how the author of the letter understood hamartía (“sin”), and what he meant by the use of the term. We have already discussed this in earlier studies (on 2:28-3:10), but it will take on importance again as the author brings his work to a close in 5:13-20. This section is notorious among commentators, due in particular to the statements regarding sin in verses 16-17. However, there are several other critical points and questions which need to be addressed as well. I hope you will join me.

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