“This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 John 5:6-8).
These words of the apostle John are some of the most argued over verses in the Bible. What exactly do they mean? There have been many suggestions as to exactly what the water and blood are by which Christ came, but the most agreed upon are the following two explanations:
The Sacrifice of Jesus
The blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side when his body was pierced by a Roman soldier after his death on the cross (John 19:34). Understood this way, the water and blood of which John spoke would symbolically represent the blood and water involved in some of the Old Testament sacrifices (Leviticus 14:52: “He shall purify the house with the bird’s blood, the fresh water, the live bird, the cedar wood, the hyssop and the scarlet yarn.” Hebrews 9:19: “he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people.” etc.).
However, although the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side may have symbolically fulfilled the blood and water aspect of the physical sacrifices, how would this apply to what John says in 1 John 5:6-8? We should note that the order John gives in those verses is water and blood – not blood and water as in all the sacrificial related scriptures. Second, if this were the meaning John had in mind, why would he write that Jesus “came” by the water and blood? In what sense could he have “arrived” after his death? And why would John add “He did not come by water only, but by water and blood.”?
The Baptism and Death of Jesus
The other major interpretation of what John wrote argues that the “water and blood” refer to the water of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and the blood of his sacrifice on the cross. In this sense, the Son of God could certainly be said to have “come” through these two events as they framed Jesus’ ministry from beginning to end. Remember that at both points Christ was declared to be the Son of God – by the heavenly voice at his baptism (Matthew 3:17), and by the testimony of the centurion at his death (Matthew 27:54). Also, as John states, the Spirit of God testified to Jesus being the Son of God (1 John 5:7-8) a fact that applies far more to his complete ministry than to an isolated point after his death.
This understanding fits the order of words that John used – the water then the blood – and there is a historical reason why it is likely correct. The epistle of John was written partly to combat emerging heretical ideas that taught the Son of God descended upon and entered the man Jesus at his baptism and then left him at the time of his arrest, so that it was only the physical Jesus who died. John argues against these early gnostic teachings in many verses of his first epistle and his statement that Jesus came by water and blood makes total sense in this regard.
John seems to argue that the work of the Son of God spanned the whole of his life from baptism to death – which is why he would stress: “He did not come by water only, but by water and blood” (vs. 6b). John’s point is that, contrary to false teachings, it was the Son of God who was baptized and who was crucified. In saying this, John counters the gnostic stress on “knowledge” of this false Jesus – which is why the apostle (stressing both knowledge and idols) concludes:
“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20-21).