“Water, Blood, and Spirit Crying” (1 John 5:1-8)
“Water, Blood, and Spirit Crying”: That’s the hymn we just sang (LSB 597). Listen again to the words of the first stanza:
Water, blood, and Spirit crying,
By their witness testifying
To the One whose death-defying
Life has come, with life for all.
The One to whom the Spirit, the water, and the blood are testifying is, of course, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has defied and defeated death for us, who comes with life for all, and whose Easter victory we are celebrating during this season.
But now where did the hymn writer get the idea for this hymn and the very words that he uses? He got them from our Epistle for today, from 1 John chapter 5. And in particular, from verses 6-8, reading again as follows: “This is he who came by water and blood–Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” This is our text.
And this is essential to our faith! That Jesus came by both the water and the blood, and that the Holy Spirit testifies to this truth–why, without the water, the blood, and the Spirit all testifying to this one Savior, we would have no salvation at all! This text is about the person and work of Christ, who he is and what he has done for us. And that, beloved, is the heart and center of our faith. So now let’s explore what the Apostle John is saying in our text.
This whole letter of 1 John is written to encourage the believers to hold firm to the faith delivered to them, in the face of a challenge that came from false teachers who might lead them astray. John doesn’t refer to the false teacher or teachers by name in this letter, but we get some clues about the nature of the group and its teaching by what John says and emphasizes in contrast to that group.
In reading this letter, it becomes clear that John is writing against a group that has trouble with Jesus as the Son of God come in the flesh–that is, as the incarnate Christ, taking on our flesh, suffering and dying for our sins, and then rising, bodily, from the dead. They don’t believe that. It’s too much for them. And so John opens his epistle by saying that he has seen and handled and touched the body of the risen Christ and that life is found only in fellowship with him.
The Son of God, dying for our sins? That is repulsive to this group. They don’t think their sins are that bad that they need the Son of God dying for them in order to be saved! In fact, they think they are above sinning. But John says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
They thought religion was about attaining to some superior secret knowledge, making one super-spiritual, more enlightened than the rest. And so these people would withdraw from the church, from the fellowship of the congregation, and they formed their own special group. Their love for the brothers was lacking.
But before we get too far in condemning John’s opponents here, maybe we should take a look at ourselves. Are we troubled by our sins? Or do we go along nonchalantly, just brushing them off like they’re no big deal? If so, then why did Jesus die? No, our sins are serious business, so let’s not deceive ourselves.
Do we have a tendency to pull away from the congregation, from our brothers and sisters, when things don’t go our way? When somebody in the church rubs us the wrong way? Are we slow to forgive? Then we too need to repent of this “I don’t need you” attitude.
And this sinful nature of ours is precisely why we need a Savior who came by both the water and the blood, the one to whom the Spirit testifies and about whom John writes.
Now to help us better understand what John is saying here about water, blood, and Spirit, let’s take a look at the person who may well have been the false teacher John is writing against. It’s a fellow named Cerinthus. He’s not named in the epistle, but we learn from church history that Cerinthus was spreading his false teaching at the same time and in the same place as where John was living when he wrote this letter, which was in Ephesus, in the late first century. Indeed, there is a story that one day John was going to the public bathhouse in Ephesus, but when he saw that Cerinthus was inside, he said, “Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
What did this false teacher Cerinthus teach that was so dangerous to the faith? The church father Irenaeus tells us: “[Cerinthus] represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible [that is, incapable of suffering], inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.”
In other words, according to Cerinthus, Jesus was just a guy–a really good guy, but a mere man, nonetheless. At his baptism, the spirit of the Christ came down and rested on this man Jesus, which enabled him to do the miraculous works he did. But before Jesus suffered and died on the cross, the Christ spirit left the man Jesus, since of course God cannot suffer. That’s what Cerinthus taught.
But do you see why that would be so deadly to our faith and render our salvation null and void? Because if it was not Jesus as the Christ, the very Son of God incarnate, both true God and true man, all the way from his birth to his baptism to his suffering and death to his resurrection–if it is not this one and the same Jesus who is your Savior, then you have no Savior!
You see, if Jesus were just a man–a really righteous man perhaps, who suffered and died on the cross–well, good for him, maybe God would reward him by raising him from the dead. But that wouldn’t do you any good. On the other hand, if Jesus is indeed the very Son of God, and he sheds his holy blood for you and for all the other sinners of the world–well, then his suffering and death have infinite value, sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world and to win our forgiveness and thus our eternal life. Which they do. So you see, who Jesus is makes all the difference in winning our salvation.
And so to emphasize the point that it is this same Jesus Christ, the God-man Savior, both in the water of his baptism and in the blood of his crucifixion, John writes: “This is he who came by water and blood–Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood.” And then to drive home the point that the Holy Spirit testifies to the truth of this in our preaching, John adds: “And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”
The bottom line is, if you don’t have the Son of God shedding his blood for you on the cross, you don’t have a Savior at all, and you are still stuck in your sins. But because you do have such a Savior, you can rejoice that all your sins are covered and cleansed by Jesus’ holy blood.
It’s the same Jesus Christ, both at his baptism and at his crucifixion. And, friends, you are connected to this same Jesus Christ, and you receive his gifts, both in the waters of your baptism and in the body and blood of Christ you receive in the Lord’s Supper.
And notice, in the hymn we sang, that’s where the hymn writer takes us in the next stanzas, namely, to the Sacraments:
In a wat’ry grave are buried
All our sins that Jesus carried;
Christ, the Ark of Life, has ferried
Us across death’s raging flood.
Dark the way, yet Christ precedes us,
Past the scowl of death He leads us;
Spreads a table where He feeds us
With His body and His blood.
Then to complete the picture, the hymn brings out the testimony of the Spirit in the preaching of the Word:
Through around us death is seething,
God, His two-edged sword unsheathing,
By His Spirit life is breathing
Through the living, active Word.
Dear friends, the water of Christ’s baptism, where Jesus identified with us sinners and started on his journey to the cross–his baptism puts life into the water of our baptism. The blood Jesus shed on the cross for you, for your forgiveness–this is what you receive today in Holy Communion. And the Holy Spirit is testifying to the truth of all this, strengthening you in the faith through the means of Word and Sacrament. What glorious good news this is! Why, it’s enough to sing about!
Spirit, water, blood entreating,
Working faith and its completing
In the One whose death-defeating
Life has come, with life for all.