“The Spirit and the Water and the Blood” (1 John 5:1-8)
Our Epistle today from First John includes a section that at first glance may seem a little puzzling. But when we look at it a little more closely, we’ll see how it really does make sense. Indeed, it makes quite clear the very heart of our faith and salvation. The passage in question is 1 John 5:6-8, 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.” And so our theme this morning: “The Spirit and the Water and the Blood.”
The Spirit and the water and the blood: Now what in the world is John talking about here? And what does it have to do with us? Well, it has everything to do with us, because it’s all about Jesus. And without Jesus–without the right Jesus, that is–we have no faith and no salvation at all. This passage has everything to do with who Jesus is, contrary to any errors that were circulating back then or errors that are circulating in our day. This passage has to do with who Jesus is for us. If you don’t get this Jesus right, you don’t have anything! And the Spirit and the water and the blood–these three all bear witness to who the real Jesus is.
Now to understand our text, it’s helpful to know the kind of errors that were being taught about Jesus, which John is writing against. Earlier in today’s Epistle, notice in verse 1, where it says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” “That Jesus is the Christ”: File that away. Then in verse 5, it says, “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Now it’s, “that Jesus is the Son of God.”
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ,” and then, “the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” These two things, that Jesus is the Christ and that he is the Son of God–John is saying here that every true child of God believes these two things about Jesus. We believe that Jesus is both the Christ and the Son of God. This fits very well with what John wrote near the end of his gospel, in John 20: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” You see, these basic truths about Jesus are not some obscure, trivial niceties, like it really doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus. By no means! Who Jesus is, the person of Christ–this is a matter of the utmost importance. It’s a matter of life or death–your eternal life or death. And it’s not just what you believe “about” Jesus. It’s that you believe “in” Jesus, that you trust in him, and precisely as he really is. Only this Jesus–the Christ, the Son of God–only he can save you.
But not everyone at the time that John is writing this believed these things about Jesus. Oh, they might claim to know God and to have fellowship with God. They might say some things about Jesus. They might talk about the “Christ” and about God. But they could not say, as the apostle John says here, that the man Jesus is, in fact, the Christ, the Son of God.
People who claim to teach the truth about God but who cannot confess the person of Christ like the apostles do–we call those people heretics. One of the main heretics at the time John is writing this letter was a man named Cerinthus. And what John writes about the Spirit and the water and the blood would especially go against the heresies that Cerinthus taught.
We find out about those false teachings from the early church father Irenaeus. Irenaeus lived a couple of generations after the apostle John. Irenaeus was taught the faith by a man named Polycarp, and Polycarp in turn had been a student of the aged apostle John himself. So Irenaeus, you could say, was kind of a spiritual grandson of St. John, and the history had been passed on to him. That’s how Irenaeus could write about the situation John was dealing with in combating the heresies of Cerinthus.
Here then is a description of what Cerinthus taught: “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.”
Now let me make sure you understand that. The false teaching was as follows: The man Jesus was just an ordinary guy–a really good guy, but not the Son of God. At his baptism, the divine Christ-spirit came upon Jesus and enabled him to do all kinds of good stuff. But before Jesus entered into his suffering, the Christ-spirit left Jesus, since a divine being could not suffer. Got it? That was the false teaching of Cerinthus, and it was misleading many people.
So now here comes John, and he blows Cerinthus and his ilk right out of the water. Those heretics who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ in his person, those false teachers who do not believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God come from heaven, come in the flesh–those guys are liars. They will lead you straight to hell. Don’t listen to them. For the Spirit and the water and the blood all testify against them.
With that background then, now we can make sense of what John is saying when he writes: “This is he who came by water and blood–Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood.” “This is he,” namely, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. The heretics couldn’t handle the idea of God coming in the flesh. They had to make a separation between the ordinary man Jesus and the spiritual “Christ,” as they imagined it. But John is saying that Jesus is the Christ in his very person. He is the divine Messiah come from heaven. It wasn’t just that at his baptism the Christ-spirit came on Jesus for a while and then left him before his suffering. To be sure, at his baptism, Jesus was publicly attested as the Messiah, and the Spirit did come upon him in the form of a dove. But the man Jesus is the Christ, in his very person.
So Jesus is the Christ, in his person, as was declared at his baptism in the water of the Jordan. That takes care of the reference to the “water.” But why does John then add the “blood”? “He who came by water and blood . . . not by the water only but by the water and the blood.” You see, this is another thing the heretics could not handle: that the Christ shed his blood and died. God’s Son, suffering on the cross and dying? That was abhorrent to them.
And it is still abhorrent to people today. Let me tell you why. Because people don’t want to think it took the death of God’s only Son to pay the price for their sins. They don’t want to hear that they need to be rescued from God’s judgment. They don’t want to think that they are that bad off, that they can’t please God on their own. They think there must be some other way. Or that they’re already good enough. Or that God’s just an old softie who will wink at their sin. Or that there’s no such a thing as God or sin or heaven and hell. And if I just hold my hands over my ears and yell, “La, la, la, I can’t hear you!” then I can pretend I don’t hear God’s voice calling me to repentance. That is what a lot of people think. They think their big problem isn’t sin, it’s something else. So they go searching for happiness in all the wrong places. Or they come up with some made-up, so-called “spirituality” that appeals to their sense of self-worth. But what they cannot abide, what they cannot accept, is that this man Jesus is, in fact, the very Son of God come in the flesh to be their Savior, and that it took his holy blood, shed on the cross, to take away their sin and win their salvation.
You see, the truth is, our big problem is sin, our own sin. We cannot atone for that. We cannot dig our way out of or rise above it. The only remedy is the one that God himself provides, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. And the Spirit, the water, and the blood all attest to this one great Savior. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the Father declared him to be his beloved Son and the Spirit testified to him being the Christ, as Jesus got in the water with sinners and set out on his saving mission. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So the blood that Christ would shed as the sacrifice for sin was in view from the outset. Indeed, Jesus is most the Christ as he is hanging on the cross, suffering and bleeding and dying as the Savior of the world. “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–the Holy Spirit is testifying to us this very day. Through the Epistle that John has written, through the preaching of the gospel you’re hearing right now, the Spirit is calling you to trust in Jesus Christ, and in nothing else. The-water-and-the-blood Jesus, the one who went from his watery baptism to his bloody death–this Jesus, and no one else, is the only one who can save you. Not some false christ who is just a good teacher or a moral example. The-water-and-the-blood Jesus, the real Jesus–trust in him. Outside of him, apart from faith in him, there is no salvation. But in him, through faith in him, you are saved, you do have life.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” You, God’s child, dearly loved by him–God has taken you as his own. You have been washed clean in the blood of Christ. You have been gifted with the Spirit, given in the water of your baptism. You who believe in Jesus, the Son of God–you are the one who overcomes the world, with all of its false teachings. You overcome by the blood of the Lamb, the same blood you receive here in the Blessed Sacrament. Because of the-water-and-the-blood Jesus, you have life now and life forever. For this same Jesus Christ rose from the dead, in victory over sin and death. And now he shares this resurrection life with you and all who trust in him. “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”