How did Jesus Come “By Blood and By Water?” An Exegetical Summary of 1 John 5:6

1 John 5:6- Text

Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἐλθὼν δι’ ὕδατος καὶ αἵματος, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός· οὐκ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι μόνον ἀλλ’ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι καὶ ⸀ἐν τῷ αἵματι· καὶ τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ μαρτυροῦν, ὅτι τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν ἡ ἀλήθεια

Translation

“This is the one who came by water and blood, that is, Jesus Christ. (He came) not by the water only but by the water and by the blood. And the Spirit is the one who bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth.”

The Views

What does it mean that Jesus came “by water and blood?” There are at least six views: The first view understands the “water and blood” to refer to the rites of baptism (water) and the Lord’s Supper (blood). The second view understands the “water and blood” to refer to the “blood and water” that poured out of Jesus’ side on the cross (John 19:34-35). The third view takes the “water and blood” as referents to Jesus’ baptism (water) and his atoning death on the cross (blood).[1] The fourth view understands “by water” to refer to Jesus’ baptism ministry and “by blood” to his death. The fifth view takes “by water and blood” as a reference to natural birth, viewing the phrase as an argument for his real humanity. The sixth view takes “water and blood” as a unit reflecting the Jewish understanding of the body as composed of water and blood, making a statement analogous to John’s description of Jesus coming ‘in the flesh’ in 4:2.

Kruse advocates the fourth view, seeing the water and the blood both pointing to something Jesus did (baptize others and die on the cross).[2] Yarborough, Akin, and Smalley affirm the third view that “water and blood” refer to Jesus’ baptism and atoning death on the cross. However, Yarborough also acknowledges Kruse’s view that the “water” component may refer to Jesus’ baptism ministry by extension, but that the primary implication is Jesus’ reception of John’s baptism of repentance “by water.”[3]

The Verdict

I find the view that considers the water and the blood to refer to Jesus’ baptism and atoning death on the cross to be the most commendable. It seems that John’s use of the aorist ὁ ἐλθὼν (“the one who came”) precludes a focus on the continuing practices of baptism and the Lord’s supper. Smalley states that this use of the aorist “suggests a definite moment in history, rather than a repeated appearance in the sacraments.”[4] The view that “water and blood” refers to the “blood and water” that flowed from Jesus’ side seems doubtful due to the differing word order of water and the prepositions used in 5:6. If John wanted to directly connect the phrase in 5:6 to John 19:34-35 it seems likely that he would have used the exact same phrase: ἐξῆλθεν…αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ. Instead, he uses the prepositions δι’ ὕδατος καὶ αἵματος and ἐν τῷ ὕδατι καὶ ἐν τῷ αἵματι. As Smalley states, the “blood and water” in John 19:34-35 come from Jesus, while Jesus comes by or in water and blood in 1 John 5:6.[5] With regards to the fourth view of seeing the “water” referring to Jesus’ baptism ministry, I agree with Yarborough that this could be an implication by extension of Jesus’ baptism, but is not the focal point of the phrase.[6]

Akin records the two kinds of false teaching that John is addressing. First, that Jesus was not God and second, that the “heavenly Christ” descended on Jesus at his baptism but withdrew before he died on the cross. [7] The fifth and sixth views of “water and blood” (child birth and the Jewish understanding of the body) accurately understand John’s reference the real humanity of Jesus, but each fall short of challenging the false teaching that Jesus was not God when he died on the cross.

Jobes states that the false teachers John is addressing might have been referring to the Holy Spirit in their use of the term “water.” However, they apparently viewed Jesus’ work as water-only, meaning they placed an emphasis on Jesus working through the Spirit (by his miracles and teaching) but not by his human life and death.[8] Therefore, John’s correction, “not by the water only” (οὐκ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι μόνον) but “by the water and by the blood,” assumes their view of water referring to the Spirit, but reminds them that Jesus didn’t come and accomplish his salvific work by the Spirit alone but through his human life, death, and resurrection.

Jobes’ qualification is complementary to the view advocated in this paper, because it is the Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism (confirming his identity) and who was sent after his death (confirming his resurrection and fulfilling his promise to send the Spirit). Furthermore, it is the Spirit who continues to testify to these things (5:6b). Thus, the interpretation of “water and blood” as the terminal events of Jesus’ ministry, his baptism and death, fits best with the historical context and John’s polemic against false teaching. It also presents the gospel in clear terms: Jesus is God incarnate who came to save sinners through his life, death on a cross, and resurrection, as testified to by the Holy Spirit. Jobes concludes, “by this understanding, John is opposing any teaching that demotes or eliminates the cross, a heresy symbolized by a ‘water only’ gospel; the full significance of the incarnation of Jesus Christ is upheld only by a ‘water and blood’ gospel.”[9]

Bibliography

[1] Daniel Akin, “1, 2, 3 John” in The New American Commentary, Vol. 38, ed. E Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2001), 195-197.

[2] Colin G. Kruse, “The Letters of John,” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 174-178.

[3] Robert Yarborough, “1-3 John” in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 282.

[4] Stephen Smalley, “1, 2, 3 John” in World Biblical Commentary, vol. 51, ed. Barker and Hubbard, (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1984), 277.

[5] Ibid., 278.

[6] It is difficult to imagine why John would use “by water” to describe Jesus’ ministry of baptism. Even though he might have baptized others (probably through the disciples), was not the distinctive aspect of Jesus ministry baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, instead of water? αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί. What then, would John gain by referring to it as “water” here?

[7] See Akin, “1, 2, 3 John,” 197.

[8] Karen H. Jobes, “1, 2, & 3 John” in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 220.

[9] Ibid., 221.

2 thoughts on “How did Jesus Come “By Blood and By Water?” An Exegetical Summary of 1 John 5:6

  1. I like to compare this passage with John 3:5 where water seems to refer to our human birth and spirit to us being born again. Wonder if 1 John 5:6 Therefore refers to Jesus incarnation and then his sacrificial atonement. I would probably take view five but not a hill I am willing to die on!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the comment and the insight, I didn’t consider John 3:5! The thing to wrestle with is that if John is correcting the false teachers who claimed that Jesus came “by water only,” the false teachers would have also been referring to his incarnation, and we know from the rest of the letter it doesn’t seem like they understood the deity of Jesus or the incarnation. I think you’re spot on with Spirit and being born again, which is why I would take it to refer to Jesus’ baptism where the Spirit descends on Him- though clearly he doesn’t need to be born again- and his crucifixion, where Jesus gives up His spirit into the hands of the Father!

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