This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ (1 John 5:6). What does it mean that He came by water and blood? The prepositional phrase is adverbial, modifies the main verb, and tells us how Christ came. As Westcott (1966) indicates, “The sense of ‘He that came,’ which distinctly points to a past historic fact, determines that these terms [water and blood] also must have historic meaning” (p. 181). Water and blood bracket Christ’s earthly ministry. He was baptized with water to begin His earthly ministry, and Christ shed His blood to complete His earthly ministry. This interpretation goes back to Tertullian (Smalley, 2008, p. 265). “It takes water as referring to the baptism of Jesus, at which He was declared the Son and commissioned and empowered for His work, and blood to His death, in which His work was finished” (Stott, 1981, p. 178). Law (1968) interprets the text similarly; “Thus it is evident that ‘water’ here denotes our Lord’s baptism, and ‘blood’ His death on Calvary” (p. 96).
Water and blood is a figure of speech we call a merism, which is a “[r]eference to the totality of something by naming its extremes or opposite parts” (Hernando, 2005, p. 117). In this case, the text speaks of the totality of Jesus’ ministry by symbolically mentioning its beginning and end. “And the aorist naturally refers to definite historical facts, or to the whole life regarded as one fact” (Brooke, 1964, p. 134). The latter is the case here. John “is thinking of the total act of his coming into the world” (Marshall, 1978, p. 231). In addition, the word water and the word blood are both a figure of speech we call metonym. Water, which is an aspect of baptism, is put in the place of baptism. In the case of the crucifixion, blood is put in place of this murderous act of shedding blood.
John presses his point by adding, Not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. Again, the text refers to blood and thus to Christ’s atonement for sin. Romans 3:25 speaks of “propitiation in His blood,” or by means of His blood, or by means of His death. The context is guilt for sin (Romans 3:23). Of course, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “Propitiation contemplates our liability to the wrath of God and is the provision of grace to release us from that bondage” (Murray, 1959, p. 116). The result is profound. “The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7).
The crucifixion has a twofold effect. On the one hand, the cross assuages God’s wrath against us. On the other hand, the impact of “the blood of Christ” is to “cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Therefore, you experience “the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4). There is a subtly here. John may be emphasizing the propitiatory work of Christ when he adds this statement: Not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. “For propitiation strictly refers to the sacrifice of His death” (Calvin, 1961, p. 291).
Verse 6 continues. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. That John moves quickly to the testimony of the Spirit is not surprising. “The Holy Spirit is He who testifies of Christ (John xv. 26), who glorifies Him, and shews of the things which belong to Him (John xvi. 14). “It is by the possession of Him that we know that we have Christ” (Alford, 1983, p. 1750). The verbal, who testifies, is a present active participle. “The reference is to the continuing witness, or testimony, of the Spirit” (Haas et al., 1972, p. 138). “The witness concerned is both corporate and individual. The Spirit bears testimony to the salvific character of Jesus in and through the church by means of preaching” (Smalley, 2008, p. 267). At the same time, “John appears to be referring to the inward witness of the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to see the truth as it is in Jesus” (Stott, 1981, p. 180). Even in the corporate setting, the testimony of the Spirit is personal and individual.
“In order to stress that the Spirit’s testimony about the circumstances of Jesus’ coming can be trusted, the author adds ‘because the Spirit is the truth’” (Haas et al., 1972, p. 139). “The best explanation of the author’s meaning is to be found in the account of the function of the Paraclete in Jn. xv. 26” (Brooke, 1964, p. 136). “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me.” In summary, John gives us “two kinds of corroborative testimony, objective and subjective, historical and experimental, water and blood on the one hand and the Spirit on the other” (Stott, 1981, p. 180). “He it is who seals in our hearts the testimony of the water and the blood. He it is who by His power makes the fruit of Christ’s death come to us, who makes the blood shed for our redemption penetrate our souls.” (Calvin, 1961, p. 304). And so, the Spirit works in us to assure us that Christ sacrificed Himself for us.
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Alford, H. (1983). The New Testament for English Readers (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids: Baker.
Brooke, A. E. (1964). Commentary on the Johannine Epistles. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
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Hass, C., et al. (1972). The Letters of John. New York: United Bible Societies.
Hernando, J. D. (2005). Dictionary of Hermeneutics. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing.
Law, R. (1968). The Tests of Life. Grand Rapids: Baker.
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Murray, J. (1959). The Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
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Stott, J. R. W. (1981). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Westcott, B. F. (1966). The Epistles of St. John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.