1 John 5:7-8 – What Does John Mean by the Water and the Blood?

Who is Jesus, the son of God? John says, “the one came by water and blood.” This is an obscure answer. Although there are many modern suggestions for what John meant, Karen Jobes suggests the original readers would have understood this allusion because they have firsthand knowledge of the teaching of the ones who have left the church. John only needs to briefly allude to them by means of these obscure words and they would understand what he meant (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 220).

Water and BloodIncluding the Spirit, there are three things are in agreement that Jesus is the Son of God. There are two possible allusion to the Gospel of John in these verses. In John 3:5, one cannot see the kingdom of Heaven without being born of water and the Spirit. In John 19:34, when Jesus is pierced water and blood flow from his side. When the soldiers approach Jesus, he is already dead but they confirm this by piercing his side with a spear.  As a result, blood and water flow, indicating that the blood was already separating.

The main point of this flow of water and blood was to confirm the death of Jesus. That he was “really dead” is important for the resurrection.  The Romans did not take a partially dead man from the cross who could “revive” with a little medical attention.  Indeed, Jesus was dead.  John may be alluding to Scripture, such as Exodus 17:6, “strike the rock and the water will flow.” Water is the source of life, certainly water from the hand of God in Exodus 17 is a symbol of salvation provided by God.  There are many verses which describe God himself as the Rock of Salvation Ps 18:31, for example).

John tells us the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side bears witness this is truly what happened. The beloved disciple also witnesses this piercing, so that John’s claim here in 1 John is “I am an eyewitness of the water and the blood.”

One option but interpreting the water and the blood to take them as a reference to literal water and blood. There are two possibilities here: First, Jesus’s birth and death. Here water refers to the breaking of the water prior to birth and the blood refers to the crucifixion. Similarly, Kruse observes there are ancient Jewish sources describing the human body as composed of two elements, water and blood (Kruse, The Letters of John, 176). However, he does not cite any sources which actually say this. Jesus’s baptism and death. Using the Gospel of John as a guide, the phrase “in water only appears in the Gospel with reference to John’s baptism (John 1:26, 31, 33; Kruse, Epistles of John, 175). This would then refer to Jesus’s whole ministry from baptism through the death on the cross.

A second option is to take the water and the blood as a metaphor relating to something in the Christian life or practice.  For example, some church fathers took the water as a reference to water baptism and the blood to the Eucharist (Tertullian, Augustine, Ambrose). Sometimes this “water and blood” was related to John 4 (living water) and John 6 (bread from heaven), both commonly taken as an allusion to the (later) practice of the Eucharist (Calvin and Luther? Find a reference to this). It is likely there are a few commentaries to be cited that see this as an indication of a later date for the letter and reflecting the growing importance of the Eucharist.

The real problem for “blood” as a reference to taking communion is the cup as “the blood of Jesus” is not found in John’s Gospel, and in the synoptic gospels the cup represents the blood which initiates the New Covenant. It is only in later Catholicism the cup is understood as the literal blood of Jesus.

More recently, To Thatcher suggested water is the Holy Spirit and blood refers to the physical death of Jesus on the Cross. This is attractive because the Old Testament often portrays the Holy Spirit in liquid terms, he is “poured out” on God’s people. In addition, Paul’s description of the baptism in the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 connects the Spirit with water as well.

So what is the “water and blood”? The first phrase in verse 6 refers to the life and atoning sacrifice of Jesus (from baptism to crucifixion); the second in verse 7 adds the Spirit as a witness since the Spirit applies the atoning sacrifice to the life of the believer.

How does the Spirit, water and the blood agree in their testimony Jesus is the Son of God? The tradition of “two or three witnesses” is based on the Law, Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, for example. Something is made certain by three witnesses. John may have in mind the witness of two at the baptism of Jesus (the Spirit descended on Jesus) and the two witnesses at the cross, the blood and water from the side of Jesus.

Bibliography: Tom Thatcher,“‘Water and Blood’ in Anti-Christ Christianity (1 John 5:6).” SCJ 4 (2001): 235–48; see also his commentary on these verses: “1 John,” “2 John,” “3 John.” Pages 414–538 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 13 (Rev. ed. Edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006); (Ben Witherington, III, “The Waters of Birth: John 3:5 and 1 John 5:6–8,” NTS 35 (1989): 155–58).

7 thoughts on “1 John 5:7-8 – What Does John Mean by the Water and the Blood?

  1. This is a passage I have been waiting for. Do blood and water always have to refer to the same ting in this passage? Could not the first water and blood refer to a normal birth, Jesus was a man just like the rest of us? But even more significant to my mind is the reference to water, blood and spirit, and “the three are one” to take the Greek literally. And taking a Platonic understanding of “spirit”, recall Christianity rapidly sided with Neo-Platonic ideas while being perceived as Stoic (reference Jospehus and “The Death of Peregrine”, thinly disguised parody of the “Martyrdom of Polycarp”), could yield the Shroud of Turin.

    • I think the water/blood as a “normal birth” is an easiest solution, as is the birth/death as suggested above. That “water and blood” flow from Jesus in John 19:34 strikes me as too important intertext to overlook assuming 1 John and the Gospel of John are related.

      Do you mean by, “’the three are one’ to take the Greek literally.” as, water/blood/spirit = human body?

      • No Phillip, I view “spirit” as being linked to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” where people see shadows on the wall and interpret them as reality rather than the negative image of reality. The Shroud of Turin is a photographic negarive. The human eye is easily drawn to the dark portions, but the image of a face and body is reversed and thus hard to see. But a “spirit” image left behind would be proof positive that the person had departed and gone to heaven. The gospel of Mark is a key point where it seems to have originally stopped before appearances of the Risen Christ. John’s appearance in the closed room could simply be an revealing of the cloth. Paul’s inability to describe a risen body could well be the result of seeing proof of the passage into heaven but not the reality of what that meant. When I take the Greek literally as the “three are one”, I add a parenthetical “thing”, the burial cloth that proves that the soul/spirit of Jesus moved on to heaven, just as it was BELIEVED, without proof positive, had happened with Moses and Elijah

  2. I’ve never liked the must be baptized argument that people make based on John 3:5. I always go to the thief on the cross. The past four months actually told me that was cuz of John 3:5 they know the theif must have been baptized.
    On another note born by water means literal birth what does that mean for all the souls that do not reach birth. Miscarriages have abortions they’re not born of water?

  3. John describes Jesus in an unclear way to the modern reader by stating that He is the one who came by water and by blood. Jobes mentions how the original readers of this text would have understood what John was stating because they were taught this firsthand.
    Mentioned in John 19:34, the piecing of Jesus’s side by the soldiers while He was on the cross resulted in a clear separation of water and blood that flowed from His side, indicating that Jesus was dead. The fact that Jesus was really dead, and it was proven, is a huge part of the resurrection story, simply because there cannot be a resurrection if there is no death. Throughout the Bible water is a symbol of life, such as the story of the woman at the well receiving the water that would make her thirst no more. Another example is how baptism was a symbol of receiving eternal life one day in heaven. Water is a symbol of life, and of God’s salvation. When readers interpret the water and blood they come to two different conclusions. The first has to do with birth–the mother’s water breaking–and death–the blood from the crucifixion. The second is a more literal approach being water baptism and the breaking of the bread (similar to taking communion) for blood. The more recent conclusion stated that the water relates to the Holy Spirit and the blood is simply Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

  4. Historical context really seems to matter most with this passage. As Professor Long emphasizes, water and blood are not explained, becuase those reading John’s letter would have instantly understood what he was talking about. Unfortunately this does not help us. However, through looking at the context and the verses before and after we can begin to understand what John is trying to say. This whole chapter of 1 John is talking about how Jesus is the Son of God, and the testimonies in which Jesus is proven to be so (1 Jn. 5:7-9). To understand the terms “water” and “blood” must be thought of through the identity of Jesus. Professor Long notes that due to the testimony of the Spirit, and the key role that the Spirit plays in Jesus’ baptism, the two terms could reference to John meaning Jesus’ ministry from his baptism to his crucifixion. This would make sense, because when he is baptized the Holy Spirit comes down and meets him, and the Father tells him that Jesus is his son (Mark 1:7-9). Both the Spirit and the Father are shown to bear witness to Jesus’ divinity. Considering that John is trying to emphasize Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, it makes even more sense to emphasize his baptism, because God and the Spirit clearly expressed this. It is hard to identify what “blood” represents, other than it being Jesus’ crucifixion. The crucifixion of Jesus showcased witnesses, such as the blood and water coming from his side that indicated his death and the eye witnesses that saw him crucified (Long). Overall, whatever the context is for this analogy of blood and water was enough to showcase Jesus as the Son of God, and allows John to express his point to his audience.

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