1 John 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Testimony to the Son

To what source of authority ought today's Christians turn in trying to settle disputed matters of the faith? To the guidance of the Holy Spirit? The confessions of the church? Events of history? The personal testimony of believers? The Scriptures? Some Christians would be tempted, perhaps, to say immediately "to Scripture"--and only to Scripture. Others would choose another of the options above, or perhaps some combination of them, always granting Scripture pride of place. In this regard 1 John is especially instructive, for in settling the christological debate in its community it never appeals to the Old Testament, and it cannot appeal to the New Testament, which did not yet exist as a collection of documents. But the present passage, in trying to underscore the importance of confession of Jesus, does appeal to the guidance of the Spirit, to a christological formula preserved by the community, to the word of reliable individuals and to the events of history. Here, then, we learn how the author sees a historical event, the inspiration of the Spirit and the teaching of the church all joining together in bearing a common witness to the truth.

The topic of discussion in 5:6-12 is appropriate confession about Jesus (compare 4:2). Here the desired confession is that Jesus Christ is the one who came by water and blood. But exactly what it means to say that Jesus came by water and blood remains as much a matter of debate today as it probably was in John's own time!The "Blood and Water" Witness to Jesus Christ (5:6)

To un derstand the point being made by the use of this phrase, it will be helpful to examine the use of "water" and "blood" in the Gospel and the epistles of John. While water is mentioned in the epistles only here, several significant references to it are found in the Gospel. The Baptist baptizes with water (1:26, 31, 33), as does Jesus (3:22; 4:1-2), and the water symbolizes cleansing. Jesus changes water set aside for the Jewish rites of purification to wine (2:1-12). He speaks of the necessity to be born of "water and the Spirit" (3:5, 8), where "water and Spirit" probably connotes one idea, namely, cleansing by the Holy Spirit (compare Ezek 36:25-27). Thus water also symbolizes the gift of the Spirit (4:13-14; 7:3739) given by the risen Jesus. Together these references stress the idea of purifying, and particularly the purifying effected by the Spirit of God.

Except for the passage under consideration, blood appears in the epistles only in 1 John 1:7, where it is said that "the blood of Jesus purifies us from every sin." In the Gospel "blood" stands for Jesus' self-sacrifice in death (6:51-58), without which there is no eternal life. Right relation ship with God, whether described in terms of being purified or having eternal life, depends upon the death of Jesus.

One passage in the Gospel of John does bring together the images of water and blood. When the soldiers pierce Jesus' side at the crucifixion, it is said that "blood and water" flowed from it (19:34). This is under stood as evidence that Jesus had indeed died, a necessary corroboration since the soldiers had not expected to find him already dead. It is likely that this story has symbolic importance as well. In light of the imagery of water and blood in the Gospel, the water and blood from Jesus' side signify that his death releases the gift of the Spirit (water) and purifica tion from sin (blood), which together confer eternal life. As Barrett aptly phrases it, John intends us to see in this event that "the real death of Jesus was the real life of men" (1978:557).

How then does this fit with 1 John? While water does not appear elsewhere in 1 John, a reference to the blood of Jesus appears as part of a refutation of the dissidents' claims that they are without sin and without need for the cleansing understood to come through Jesus' blood (1:7). Similarly, here the "coming by blood" may be a reference to Jesus' "cleansing blood," that is, to his death that purifies believers from sin. If 1 John 5:6 is referring to the incident at Jesus' crucifixion, when water and blood came out from his side, then the confession that Jesus came by water and blood points to his death as the culmination of his saving mission. Salvation came with Jesus, and it was not accomplished without his death. Indeed, Jesus himself speaks the words that guide our inter pretation when he says from the cross, "It is finished" (Jn 19:30): his saving mission is brought to its fulfillment in his death. After his death, Jesus also gave the Spirit, and through the Spirit we are born anew so that we are children of God (Jn 3:3, 5). But the giving of the Spirit was contingent upon and subsequent to Jesus' death on the cross (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:7).

The epistle has changed the order of the Gospel's phrase "blood and water" to water and blood in order to emphasize the blood, as the next part of the verse shows: not by water only, but by water and blood. Although both water and blood came forth from Jesus' side, it is Jesus' atoning sacrifice for sin that needs underscoring. We recall that the se cessionists may have been claiming that the Spirit conferred upon them the status of children of God, and by virtue of that status they had no sin and needed no further cleansing (see 1:8-10). John reminds his readers of the continued centrality of Jesus' death. Not only does it continue to provide needed atonement for us, but because the Spirit came only subsequent to Jesus' death, then whatever gifts and blessings come to us in the Spirit come to us only because of Jesus' death. And since apart from the Spirit there is no life (Jn 6:63), and since without Jesus' death the Spirit does not come, there is no life without water and blood. What was at stake in understanding Jesus Christ as the one who came by water and blood was an acceptance of his life and death as mediating God's salvation for the world.The Spirit's Witness to the Son (5:6-9)

Next the Elder turns his attention to the origin of the confession that he came by water and blood. It was not concocted by human imagination; rather, it is the Spirit who testifies. In evoking the Spirit's testimony the Elder stresses the ultimate source of this confession. He may well do so with an eye to the dissidents, who no doubt claimed their own views to be equally inspired (compare 4:1-6), even if they defied the interpretations that the Elder and his community held "from the beginning" (1:1-4; 2:20-25).

It is helpful to read this part of the epistle with the Gospel in mind. According to the Gospel, one person saw the crucifixion and testified to the water and blood (19:35). This witness is the disciple whom Jesus loved, whom many take to be the founder of the Johannine community and source of the teaching it preserved. He testified both to the fact that water and blood flowed from Jesus' side at his death, as well as to the meaning of that event. When in the epistle we read that it is the Spirit who testifies, the Elder is implicitly asserting that the so-called Beloved Disciple's testimony about this event comes from the Spirit (Brown 1982:579; compare Grayston 1984:138).

The insistence that the witness of the Beloved Disciple is identical with the witness of the Spirit arises from the debate in the Johannine community about who truly had the Spirit and what was the content of Spirit-inspired confession. In 1 John 1:1-4, and repeatedly in the rest of the epistle, the author seeks to anchor his teaching in what has been seen, testified to and proclaimed "from the beginning." Precisely that teaching has been and continues to be the result of the anointing of God and the inspiration of the Spirit. Even now the Spirit verifies the testi mony of the one who witnessed the event years before. Therefore to reject the witness and teaching of the community that stands in conti nuity with that disciple's testimony is to spurn the witness of the Spirit. To emphasize the importance of this teaching, the Elder reminds his readers that the Spirit is the truth. The Spirit is trustworthy and witnesses to that which is true. Because the Spirit is the truth, that disciple's witness also can be trusted.

It is impossible, therefore, that a contrary understanding of the signif icance of the death of Jesus could be the product of the testimony of the Spirit, for the witness of the Beloved Disciple to the water and blood of Jesus' death is confirmed by the Spirit's ongoing witness to the com munity. And while John speaks of three witnesses--the Spirit, the water and the blood--in reality he envisions one threefold witness to the fact and significance of Jesus' death. Together, Spirit, water and blood offer one testimony, and the Spirit does not testify without or apart from the blood. The statement that the Spirit, the water and the blood agree shows that the Spirit's saving work is not independent of or effective apart from that which was accomplished in Jesus' death.God's Witness to the Son (5:10-12)

Finally, the Elder shifts his appeal to the highest court: the Spirit's testimony is in fact the testimony of God (5:9, 11), for the Spirit is sent by and from God. Thus rejection of the confession that Jesus came by water and blood to give eternal life (v. 11) is not simply doubting a human idea or human word of witness: it is to deny God's own testimony to the Son. And if we are disposed to accept human testimony, as we often are (v. 9), why should we not be willing to accept that testimony which is divine in origin? Indeed, those who reject the testimony of God show that the Spirit is not active within them. For just as the Elder had stated earlier that we love because [God] first loved us (4:19), now he argues that our testimony to the world is based on God's prior testimony in our hearts. Therefore, the rejection of this testimony manifests a failure to hear and respond to the witness of God concerning the Son. Those who do not accept this wit ness to the Son show that they do not have the Spirit of truth, and in their rejection of the Spirit's testimony they as good as deny that the Spirit is speaking the truth; hence, they make God a liar. Nor do they have the eternal life the Son brings, for they have cut themselves off from its source--Jesus, who gave his life for us in death.

The summary of God's testimony with the statement that there is life in the Son confirms that what is at stake in the epistle and its various confessions about Jesus is more a soteriological than a specifically chris tological question. In other words, the issue is not so much "How shall we speak about the person of Jesus Christ?" as it is "Where is salvation, eternal life, to be found, and who has that salvation?" The answer this passage offers is that eternal life comes through appropriating the benefits of Jesus' life-giving death for us. Since the Spirit is the one who bears witness and inspires understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death, those who acknowledge the community's witness to the meaning of Jesus' death also show that they have the Spirit's testimony within them. Those who stand in continuity with the tradition, not merely for its own sake but because it preserves the centrality of Jesus' death, have salvation in [the] Son. The community of the Elder, which has experienced purifi cation and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus (1:7; 2:2; 3:5, 16; 4:10), has God's testimony and so has eternal life.

In summary, then, this passage presents the content of the confession about Jesus Christ that believers are to have and hold. But it also sug gests, explicitly and implicitly, how we know the truth. In the final analysis, the truth is known by individuals because God's Spirit guides them into understanding and accepting it (Jn 14:26; 16:13). But appeals to inspiration are always dangerous, because they are so subjective. Aware of this problem, the Elder reminds his readers of a historical event--the blood and water that flowed from Jesus' side at his crucifix ion--that was reported and interpreted to them by a trustworthy follower of Jesus, the Beloved Disciple himself. If sometimes the Spirit speaks what seems to be a fresh or new word, then the truth of the testimony ought to be measured against the witness guarded by dependable and faithful individuals and communities, and against the witness of Scripture itself. For the Spirit who guided the original witnesses of events and inspired the interpretation of them does not speak a contrary word to the church today.

Next commentary:
Closing Exhortations

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