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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The "Blood and Water" Witness to Jesus Christ (5:6)
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.

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