Braving Hard Passages: I John 5:6

We have all had moments in conversation when we did not understand someone, and anyone who reads the Bible comes across texts they do not initially comprehend. Sometimes a person or passage uses words that are simple enough, but we wonder, “what do you mean”? The best thing to do, it would seem, is to ask.

If you open your Bible to 1 John 5:6 – and please, do – you find a passage with simple enough words, but you may wonder, as many others have, to what they refer. Since the apostle John is not available to take aside and ask what he meant when he said Jesus “came by water and blood,” how can one “ask”? Well, we can ask the Divine author for help, and that’s exactly where we should start – and please, do. Now, how might He answer? Below is an example of how one might proceed.

The first thing is to make sure I “heard” what was said. I can ask John to “repeat” by slowing myself down, reading, re-reading, and then reading again. And I read as deep as possible. I compare different translations, and if I can access the original Greek, then I do that (though a faithful translation should suffice in this case, as with so many).

Chances are, I have an initial hunch or two, but I consult commentaries as I ponder, and, if I’m truly wise, I ask a friend, my spouse, an elder, or another pastor. This is as natural as asking fellow students after class, “what do you think the teacher meant by that?” Others both help and complicate matters as they ask questions I didn’t think to, suggest new lines of inquiry, propose answers, and sometimes even correct my initial hunches.

Along with repeated re-reading, I make sure to know the surrounding context. Sometimes we walk into a conversation part-way, and are lost, but would not feel so lost if we had been there from the beginning. Reading through 1 John, I find many references to Jesus’ coming, and even the author presenting himself as an eye-witness of that coming from the outset (1:1-4). The verses immediately following our text (5:6) add “the Spirit” to “water and blood” as three sources of testimony to Jesus’ coming. So I want an explanation that connects all three.

Having searched John’s letter, is there anything else he wrote? Turns out he also wrote the Gospel of John, a full eye-witness account of Jesus’ coming. This is great, because now I can ask where, if anywhere, in his account Jesus “comes by water and blood.” Turns out John’s Gospel, as all four Gospels, begins with Jesus’ baptism in water and ends with Jesus’ bloody death (before his rising again). Comparing John to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a unique detail is blood and water coming from Jesus’ side after the soldier’s pierce it with a spear (John 19:34)!

These are exciting findings, but still, what is the significance of Jesus’ coming “in water and blood”? And how does it tie in with “the Spirit”? To reach a conclusion, I shouldn’t stop with 1 John or John’s other writings, I should also keep in mind everything written by the Divine author. How are water, blood, and Spirit generally coordinated in Scripture?

Water and blood both feature in the Old Testament sacrifices as cleansing elements (e.g., Leviticus 16). The Spirit is the agent of a final, great cleansing, and his washing is portrayed in the image of water (Ezekiel 36:25, cf. John 3:5). Blood cleanses sin because it means loss of life, and death atones for sin. Does this fit with 1 John and John’s Gospel? Absolutely. John presents Jesus as the One who provides the cleansing the Spirit performs. He is baptized as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and the one who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:29-34). He is the fulfillment of all the preceding animal sacrifices, dying once for all in our place for sin, and then sending the Spirit to wash us clean. With an explanation that makes sense in the context of 1 John, John’s other writings, and the Bible as a whole, the conversation can move happily forward.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have two boys and are expecting their third child.


Steven McCarthy