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.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:6-8

1 John 5:6-8

The two central themes of 1 John—trust in Jesus and love of believer for one another—are brought together again at the start of chapter 5. Just as they represented the two aspects of the two-fold command, or duty, for the believer in Christ, so here they define one’s Christian identity—as a son/child of God, one who has come to be born of God. This is stated clearly in verse 1:

“Every (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed (One) has come to be (born) out of God, and every (one) loving the (One) causing (one) to be (born) [also] loves the (one) having come to be (born) out of Him.”

The articular perfect participle o( gegennhme/no$ (“the [one] having coming to be [born]”) serves as a title for believers in the Johannine letters. Apart, it would seem, from the second occurrence in 5:18, the verb genna/w in 1 John always is used of believers, referring to our spiritual birth “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=)—cf. 2:29; 3:9 (twice); 4:7; 5:4, 18; also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8. It is always used in the passive, i.e. the so-called “divine passive”, where God (and the Spirit of God) is the implied subject; only in the second occurrence here in verse 1 is God indicated as the active subject.

Love is the aspect emphasized in vv. 2-3, while faith/trust in Jesus is given emphasis in vv. 4ff. Indeed, in verses 4-5 it is stated that our trust in Jesus is that which gives us victory over the world:

“(For it is) that every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God is victorious [nika=|] (over) the world; and this is the victory [nikh/] th(at) gives victory [nikh/sasa] (over) the world—our trust. [And] who is the (one com)ing to be victorious (over) the world, if not the (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Son of God.”

In the Johannine writings the word ko/smo$ refers, according to the fundamental meaning of the word, to the current world order—i.e. the arrangement of things as they have come to be for created (spec. human) beings, governed and dominated by sin and darkness. In John 16:33, the closing words of the Last Discourse proper, Jesus declares “I have been victorous [neni/khka] (over) the world!” Presumably it is the completion of Jesus’ mission on earth—the e)ntolh/ given to him by the Father—culminating in his sacrificial death (cf. 19:30) which is in view. This same duty or “command” (e)ntolh/) is expressed for the believer in terms of trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers, as we have seen. The word e)ntolh/ appears again here in verse 3, connected specifically with the duty to love, but it would apply just as well to the trust that is emphasized in vv. 4ff. Just as Jesus was victorious over the world, so, too, are we through our trust in him.

This “trust” (pi/sti$) is not left unqualified. For the author of the letter, true trust or “faith” in Jesus means something definite—a specific recognition (and confession) of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Christ/Messiah) and Son of God. Of particular interest for the author is the Christological belief that Jesus was the Anointed One and Son of God who came to earth in the flesh (e)n sarki/). This is the test given in 4:2-3, and any message which denies, or is unwilling to admit, this about Jesus, is “against the Anointed” (a)nti/xristo$, i.e. “antichrist”). From the context, we may fairly assume that such a Christological view characterized those who separated from the Johannine congregations. It may also explain why the author begins the letter as he does (in 1:1), emphasizing the (concrete) hearing, seeing and touching of Jesus. Such a view (denying Jesus’ coming “in the flesh”) would seem to reflect some early kind of “docetic” Christology—i.e., that Jesus was not a true flesh-and-blood human being (in the ordinary sense), but only seemed to be so. It must be admitted, as many commentators have noted, that it would not be difficult for such a Christological outlook to develop from the Gospel of John itself with its “high” Christology. By comparison with the Synoptic Gospels, and other early strands of Gospel tradition, the portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel gives relatively less emphasis on certain aspects of Jesus’ human nature—i.e. his experience as a true human being.

It is particularly in regard to Jesus’ experience of human suffering that the Gospel of John differs considerably from the Synoptics. Consider that:

    • There is no institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Last Supper scene; as a result, the breaking of his body and shedding of his blood is not emphasized (or even mentioned) in chapters 13-17. By contrast, earlier references to Jesus’ upcoming death stress his (divine) authority in laying down his life, and taking it up again (cf. 10:17-18, etc).
    • In the Garden scene (18:1-11f), there is no account of any suffering by Jesus such as we see in Mk 14:34-39 par; [Lk 22:43-44] (but note Jn 12:27). By contrast, Jesus is depicted as being fully in control of events, speaking with such authority to his captors that they fall to the ground (v. 5-8).
    • Similarly, Jesus speaks with divine authority to Pilate (18:33-38; 19:9-11), while in the Synoptics he says virtually nothing.
    • There is no “cry of dereliction” by Jesus on the cross, nor any loud cry at the moment of his death; nor is there any account of people standing by mocking him. By contrast, Jesus is surrounded by his mother and close disciples, and appears to speak calmly, depicted as being in control of events, even at the very moment of his death (19:25-30).

Clearly, the Gospel writer has a very different side of the story he is telling, one which, while drawing upon many of the same fundamental historical traditions as the Synoptics, is presented in different manner, with themes and points of emphasis unique to the Johannine Tradition. One especially important tradition—that of the blood and water emerging out of Jesus side (19:31-37, vv. 34, 37)—would seem to relate in some way to 1 John 5:6-8. Here is how this passage begins:

“This is the (one) coming through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in the water only, but in the water and the blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness (to this), (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth.” (v. 6)

The initial (emphatic) pronoun (“this”, ou!to$) picks up from the end of verse 5, and refers to Jesus, the Son of God (“…that Yeshua is the Son of God”); the same identification is specified parethetically in v. 6, thus combining the two titles marking Jesus’ identity:

    • “Yeshua…the Son of God
    • “Yeshua the Anointed (One)

As in the case of the declaration in 4:2-3, it is not enough to trust/proclaim Jesus by these titles, but also to recognize (and confess) that Jesus came “through water and blood”. This phrase, and the statement in v. 6a, has long perplexed commentators—how exactly should this phrase be understood, and what, indeed, does it mean? The first clue lies in the obvious parallel with 4:2-3; note the specific belief regarding Jesus which was the point of contention between the author and the “antichrists”:

    • Jesus…has come in the flesh [e)n sarki/] (4:2)
    • Jesus…is the one (hav)ing come through water and blood [di’ u%dato$ kai\ ai%mato$] (5:6)

While the preposition dia/ (“through”) is different, that it may be understood as synonymous with e)n (“in”) is clear from the phrasing which follows: “in water and blood” (e)n tw=| u%dati kai\ tw=| ai%mati). Thus the parallel is even more precise:

    • in the flesh
    • in water and blood

In other words, to say that Jesus came “in water and blood” is generally the same as saying that he came “in the flesh”. At the same time, the phrase in 5:6 also appears to build on that in 4:2, indicating a development of thought. If “in the flesh” indicates that Jesus was born as a real flesh-and-blood human being, taking on the human condition, then the expression “water and blood” must relate to this in some way. This will be the focus of the discussion in the next note.

April 11 (3): John 19:34, 37

In celebration of Holy Saturday, I will be discussing one of the few events narrated in the Gospels following Jesus’ death, that of the soldier ‘piercing’ Jesus’ side in John 19:34ff. The Gospel of John records two details, each of which is tied to an Old Testament Scripture:

    1. The soldiers are ordered to break the legs of the crucified victims (in order to hasten death), but when they come to Jesus they see that he is already dead (19:31-33). The Scripture indicated in verse 36 is not absolutely certain; it may be Exodus 12:46 [cf. 12:10 LXX] or Num 9:12 (neither is cited verbatim, cf. also Psalm 34:20). The identification would seem to be with Jesus as the slain Passover Lamb—see the context of Jn 19:14; also Jn 1:29, 36.
    2. A soldier ‘pierces’ Jesus side (19:34, 37), discussed below.

John 19:34 reads:

a)ll’ ei!$ tw=n stratiwtw=n lo/gxh| au)tou= th\n pleura\n e&nucen kai\ e)ch=lqen eu)qu\$ ai!ma kai\ u%dwr
“but one of the soldiers jabbed his side with a spear-tip and straightway [i.e. right away] came out blood and water”

The verb often translated “pierce” (nu/ssw, nússœ) would be more accurately rendered “jab, stab”, perhaps implying here that the soldier’s action was not intended to produce a wound, but rather to check that Jesus was dead (in spite of verse 33). Christian tradition was quick to fill out some of the details: for example, the soldier’s name was identified as Longinus, after lo/gxh (lónch¢, “spear/lance”, technically the spear head or tip), and the wound was naturally enough specified as on the right side (see the Ethiopic version, and so typically in Christian art). The spear itself became a powerful symbol, especially in Eastern Orthodox tradition, where it was related typologically with the Angel’s sword that barred the way to Paradise (Gen 3:24)—i.e., Christ’s death opened the way for us to Paradise again (a popular theme in the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, etc). Later, the spear would play a role in the rich Grail traditions of the West (see down below).

Two elements here should be looked at in greater detail: first, the blood and water that came out from Jesus’ side (v. 34b); and second, the Scripture citation from Zechariah 12:10 (v. 37).

The Blood and Water

“…and right away came out blood and water”—there have been many attempts to explain this enigmatic detail; especially popular in modern times have been the various medical theories (treating it as a realistic phyisiological detail) which try to explain what may have occurred (cf. the standard Commentaries). These are interesting, but, I would say, somewhat misplaced. At the historical-traditional level, “blood and water” more than likely simply represent a common popular understanding of human (internal) physiology—the two obvious fluid elements contained in the human body, which for a healthy person, ought to be evenly balanced; see, for example, the Jewish tradition in the Midrash Rabbah (15.2) on Lev 13:2ff. The Synoptic tradition might have more emphasized blood coming out—see Mark 14:24 (and par) “this is my blood of the testament th(at) is poured out over many”. However, in the Gospel of John, the mention of water here alongside blood is especially significant. Apart from this verse, “blood” (ai!ma) is mentioned only two other places: in Jn 1:13 and Jn 6:53-56. The first passage contrasts those who come to be born “out of” (that is, from/by) blood (plural), the will of flesh, or the will of man with those who come to be born out of God (from the Spirit, cf. Jn 3:3-8). The second passage is part of the “Bread of Life” discourse; I have discussed these verses in an earlier post, see also here below.

Water is a more prevalent symbol in the Gospel of John. There are four (or five) principal passages:

    • The miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine (Jn 2:1-11)
    • The first portion of the discourse with Nicodemus, regarding being born “from above”, identified with being born “out of [i.e. from/by] the Spirit” (Jn 3:3-8)
    • The discourse with the Samaritan Woman, where Jesus contrasts water from the well with the “living water” he gives (Jn 4:7-15ff)
    • The saying of Jn 7:37-38, part of the discourse[s] Jesus spoke during the Feast of Booths (ch. 7-8), again emphasizing “living water” for those who believe (drink from) Jesus.
    • [One should probably add the foot-washing episode and discourse in Jn 13:1-15ff].

It is possible, I think, to connect the passages involving water and blood according to the theology of the Gospel, and so to glimpse what significance the two motifs together might have in Jn 19:34:

    • Identification of water and wine—miracle at Cana (2:7-9ff)
    • Identification of wine and blood implied—the Eucharistic nuance of Jn 6:53-58 (cf. Mark 14:24 par). Note also the theme in Jn 6:35ff of coming to (and believing in) Jesus, which is parallel to the eating (his flesh) and drinking (his blood) in vv. 51ff.
    • These two passages, taken together, effectively connect, at the symbolic level, water and blood.
    • Coming to (and believing in) Jesus is also symbolized by drinking “living water” in Jn 4:7ff and 7:37-38
    • Water is identified with the Spirit in Jn 3:3-8.
    • Blood is essentially connected with the Spirit as well in Jn 6:60ff (esp. verse 63).
    • The passages in John 3 and 6, taken as a whole, demonstrate a Spiritual interpretation and presence for both Baptism (water) and the Eucharist (blood).
    • Blood and water also both cleanse the believer—see the foot-washing scene in Jn 13:1-15ff, for this same idea with blood, cf. 1 John 1:7.

The first Epistle of John is generally understood as coming from the same basic school of thought (if not the same author) as the Gospel—it uses much common language and style, and shares many theological concepts. In addition to 1 John 1:7, we should also consult 1 Jn 5:6-8, where we see the same triad—water-blood-Spirit—which can be distilled from the Gospel passages mentioned above. It would perhaps be better to view the equation as: water-blood + Spirit. Verse 6 states that Jesus is “the one who came through water and blood“, which I take to be primarily a reference to the Incarnation, and is presumably meant to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ human nature (against early “docetic” views of Christ). If so, then we should probably view the “blood and water” of Jn 19:34 in the same light; only here it is sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death that is most prominent (note the order “blood and water” instead of “water and blood”). 1 Jn 5:7 adds the Spirit to blood-water as part of the “witness”, and, I believe, it is appropriate to add the Spirit, by way of interpretation, to Jn 19:34 as well. It should perhaps be understood in relation to the “living water” that flows from Jesus, which the believer receives within by faith (and the power of the Spirit). Jesus’ sacrificial death releases this cleansing and life-giving power to us—when we drink of it (by faith and the Spirit), the same life comes to be in us.

The Citation from Zechariah 12:10

In Jn 19:37, the Gospel writer explains the ‘piercing’ described in v. 34 as a fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10, which is cited thus:

o&yontai ei)$ o^n e)ceke/nthsan
“they will look with (open) eyes unto the (one) whom they pierced”

The Hebrew Masoretic text reads “and they will look unto me the (one) whom they struck through [i.e. pierced]”. The first person pronominal suffix (“me”) would suggest that God is the referent, but this is admittedly difficult in context, and a number of MSS instead read “him”. Verses 10-14 have primarily the theme of mourning, and the association with verses 1-9 (describing a great war and judgment against the nations) may indicate that the people who remain in the land are mourning those who have been killed (i.e., as martyrs), and as a result the people turn and look to God. This is more or less the approach taken by many Jewish commentators; however, in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 52a), we find an example of a messianic interpretation (by R. Dosa)—it is the Messiah (ben Joseph) who is pierced, and the people mourn for him. The most common early Christian interpretation is that it refers to Jesus’ return (parousia)—the people (Jews and Gentiles), especially those who are responsible for his death, will look upon him as he comes in glory. This is certainly the way the verse is used in the Johannine book of Revelation (Rev 1:7); cf. also Justin Martyr’s First Apology §52. However, I suspect that there is a deeper, spiritual meaning here in the Gospel. Consider, for example, the thematic signficance of seeing/looking, especially the way that the verb o)pta/nomai is used—Jn 1:39, 50-51; 3:36; 11:40; 16:16-19. In these passages the emphasis is primarily upon believers seeing/beholding Jesus (and his glory); elsewhere in the Gospel we find the familiar message that those who see Jesus also see the Father—this seeing is parallel with (and corresponds to) knowing, and is salvific. Nowhere is this more clear than in the sayings regarding the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). As I discussed in an earlier post, this “lifting high” reflects both Jesus’ sacrificial death and his exaltation/glorification; by looking on this symbol, we also see the Father, and are drawn to Christ; in turn, we are led by him to the Father.

There is perhaps no better image for meditation and contemplation on the eve of Easter than Christ, the one pierced, who has poured out his blood and water (his “soul unto death”, Isa 53:12), lifted high above us, where we can all look upon him with open eyes.

The spear that pierced Jesus’ side took on a surprisingly important role in medieval Grail lore, as part of a complex of images. It was paired with the cup from the Last Supper, which caught the blood which came out after Jesus was pierced. In the Grail romances, pagan religious beliefs and mythology blend together with Christian symbols and sacramental thought. The cup (eventually identified as the “Grail”) and spear both became magical-sacred objects in these tales, housed in the mysterious Grail castle. In the middle Ages, these were not necessarily idle myths—the Grail (and related Arthurian) legends could be used as a powerful expression of Christian spirituality, as we find in the 13th century Quest for the Holy Grail. In later centuries, they continued to exert a strong artistic influence, perhaps best exemplified in Richard Wagner’s ultimate musical opera Parsifal.

Join me each Saturday for an introduction to the methods and principles of Biblical criticism. These Saturday studies attempt to illustrate the importance of a sound critical-exegetical approach to Scripture, and to demonstrate how it works in practice. If you are interested in going deeper into the text of the Scriptures, but are perhaps intimidated by the idea of studying the original Greek and Hebrew, then these Saturday studies are especially for you.