Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In 1 John 5:6 John uses water and blood as symbolic short hand, clearly expecting his audience to know the meaning of these two liquids.

6 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. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. 9 We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.

At its most basic 1 John 5:6 operates as a counter claim to those who hold that Jesus Christ came in water but not in blood. John holds that Jesus Christ came by both water and blood. A counter group appears to believe He came only in water. The structure of this verse as an implicit rebuttal begs the question of what does it refute. What is the meaning of water and blood?

share|improve this question
up vote 7 down vote accepted

According to 2 John 7, there was the widespread belief that Jesus had only "appeared" and therefore did not come in the flesh -- so-called incipient Gnosticism.

2 John 1:7 (NASB)
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.

So in the epistle of First John, we see this "foot-stomping" that the very eternal life of God was robed in human flesh.

1 John 1:1-2 (NASB)
1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— 2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—

In other words, this eternal life was robed in the flesh, who was able to be physically touched, and he is equated with "eternal life."

1 John 5:20 (NASB)
20 And we know 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, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

So he came in the flesh and he is "the true God." We therefore acknowledge that the mortal life of his body is blood, but we also see in the Gospel of John that the "eternal life" of Jesus Christ is "water." That is, Jesus described his eternal life as "living water."

John 4:13-14 (NASB) 13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

So this eternal life is the "living water." So there we have the blood, which is the mortal life of the Person of Jesus Christ, and we have the water, which is the eternal life of the Person of Jesus Christ. When he died on the cross, both his mortal life (blood) and eternal life (water) left his body, and so the PERSON died both physically and spiritually. Please click here for an amplified discussion.

This particular revelation of "water + blood" comes from the Holy Spirit, who reveals (and therefore "testifies") divine truth to man according to 1 John 5:6 (and also Ephesians 3:5). And of course the resurrection of Jesus Christ (which was the blood + the water + the Spirit) also "testifies" together collectively according to 1 John 5:7 (and also Romans 1:3-4).

share|improve this answer
+1. Nicely done @Joseph! – Matthew Miller Jun 7 '13 at 0:14

Forgive me for quoting extensively from The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament. It's the only book I've found in more than 15 years of studying the writings of John which so clearly gets the water and blood right.

The Standard View: Water and Blood as Baptism and Death

It is tempting to suppose that the reference to water in this passage is a reference to Jesus' baptism and the blood to his death on the cross. In that case, it would appear that we have a repudiation of a Christology which asserted that only the baptism, and not the suffering of the cross, was part of the coming of Christ.

This is a very common view. Here's how the New Living Translation "translates" this passage, "And Jesus Christ was revealed as God's Son by his baptism in water and by shedding his blood on the cross - not by water only, but by water and blood.

Put like this, the similarities with Gnostic Cerinthus' teaching seem very marked indeed (see Irenaeus, Haer. 1.26). After all, according to Irenaeus, Cerinthus believed that Christ descended in the form of a dove, but departed from him, so that only the human Jesus suffered and rose again, while the divine Christ remained impassable. 1 John 5:6 would seem to indicate that the false teachers accepted the presence of the heavenly Christ at baptism but not at the crucifixion.

Irenaus in his second century work Against Heresies mentions the teaching of one Cerinthus. "Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He 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, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being."

Irenaus also records an antagonism between John and Cerinthus through an anecdote of Polycarp's, the disciple of John. "There are also those who heard from him (Polycarp) that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”

Problems with Water and Blood Referring to Baptism and the Cross

But there's several problem's with this interpretation.

First of all, it is by no means obvious that the coming of Christ spoken of in 1 John refers to the events which characterized his life as a whole but speak rather of the mode of his coming (i.e. his incarnation, the reality of his humanity). This seems to be the case in 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 7, where the coming on both occasions is linked explicitly with the humanity of Jesus.

1 John 4:2 states, "by this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." 2 John 7 reads, "For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh."

A more natural explanation of 5:6, therefore, is to suppose that the water and the blood refer to the nature of the incarnate Christ rather than events in his life. This is a view which would seem to be confirmed by the passage in John 19:34, which seems to parallel 1 John 5:6.

John 19:34, the only mention of blood in the crucifixion is an element of Christ's body and not simply the representation of an event. It says, "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water."

The point is further supported by a study of blood in the writings John. Though the only reference to blood in John (1:7) may seem to point to the event of Jesus crucifixion its more likely that it refers to the physical nature of his sacrifice. In the gospel of John (specifically 1:13, 6:53) blood and flesh have a synonymous meaning.

Secondly, the other passage dealing with the false teaching in 4:2 is not so easy to interpret in the light of the teaching of Cerinthus as many have supposed. The issue here, and for that matter also in 2 John 7, is not the extent of the presence of the heavenly Christ throughout the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but the reality of the humanity of Jesus Christ. There seems to be no question here of the problem of a separation between the divine Christ and the humanity of Jesus. Rather, the author of 1 John repudiates the views of the those who reject the reality of the incarnation. This was not, as far as one can ascertain, part of Cerinthus's Christology. Thus, if we start with 4:2 as a summary of the Christology of the false teachers, we are driven to conclude that the issue was the reality of the humanity of Jesus Christ.

So what then does the water mean?

Blood and Water as the Human and Divine Natures of Christ.

How then are we to understand 5:6 in this light? Is this a separate christological deviation, or can it be related to the other aspects of the false teachings? The reference in 1 John 5:6 is not to events in Jesus' life but an affirmation of the reality of the incarnation by pointing out the character of Jesus' nature, in much the same way as the parallel passage in John 19:34. This view has the advantage of being consistent with 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 7. There are two further factors to be borne in mind when interpreting the passage in the latter way, either the reference to water and blood could reflect ancient beliefs about human beings, or the water and the blood could represent the two aspects of Jesus' nature, the water the divine, the blood the human. The second alternative fits better with the fact that the writer wants to deny a view that Jesus Christ came by water only, an idea which is not completely comprehensible if this passage is merely about the make-up of humans.

Emphasis on blood as a sign of the reality of the incarnation is found also in Ignatius, Smyrn. 6, and such an emphasis contrasts with those who deny the reality of his humanity by suggesting that the body of Jesus was made up of some other substance.

Ignatius in his letter says, "Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly powers and the glory of the angels and the principalities both visible and invible, except they believe in the blood of Christ." In speaking of those who deny this he goes on to state, "They have no thought for love, nor for widow, the orphan, the afflicted, the prisoner, the hungry nor the thirsty. They withhold themselves from Communion and prayer, because they confess not that communion is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which in His loving-kindness the Father raised up."

Wengst rightly points out the difficulty of finding examples of Gnostic teachers who considered that Jesus was made up of a watery substance, without any human blood. There is some evidence, however, to suggest that some later Gnostics did think of Christ as consisting of an ethereal substance (Tertullian, De carne Christi 6 and Adv. Marc. 3.11).

Tertullian states, "Thus the official record of both substances represents him as both man and God: on the one hand born, on the other not born: on the one hand fleshly, on the other spiritual: on the one hand weak, on the other exceeding strong: on the one hand dying, on the other living. That these two sets of attributes, the divine and the human, are each kept distinct from the other, is of course accounted for by the equal verity of each nature, both flesh and spirit being in full degree what they claim to be: the powers of the Spirit of God proved Him God, the sufferings proved there was the flesh of man."

Indeed, in a passage which explicitly quoted John 19:34, Origen himself seems to make a similar point against celsus in Contra Celsum 2.36. In this passage Origen sees the water which flowed from the side of the crucified Jesus as a miraculous indication of his divinity.

Celsus had asked, "What is the nature of the ichor in the body of the crucified Jesus? Is it such as flows in the bodies of the immortal god's". Celsus had drawn this conclusion in part from the Illiad, where Homer states concerning the wounding of Aphrodite, "and blood immortal flowed from the goddess, ichor, that which funds in the veins of the blessed divinities; since these eat no food, nor do they drink of the shinning wine, and therefore they have no blood and are called immortal.' As these authors say, Origen counters Celsus' spirit of mockery but does not deny that the water is a representation of Christ's diety.

Finally it should be noted that the notion of the water being a celestial substance which was part of Jesus' make-up is not as far-fetched as may appear at first sight. After all, it is apparent from certain Jewish cosmogonies that water is one of the pre-existent substances which is used to make the world. It is not inconceivable therefore, that the author of 1 John wants to make the point that, as well as a celestial substance, there was human blood in Jesus' veins.

share|improve this answer

As Joseph noted, is it certainly that something like a proto-Gnosticism in view, although recent scholarship has pushed back the dates of Gnosticism considerably later than was earlier assumed. Still, ideas start somewhere, and we seem to be seeing evidence in 1 John of at least a sort of incipient Gnosticism sufficient to deny the full reality of the humanity of Jesus.

We should note the concern that John has with the Messianic character of Jesus. In 5:1, he has said that it is everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) who is born of God, and in 5:6, he notes the importance of believing that Jesus is the Son of God. Such a believer is the one who overcomes the world.

The term "Son of God," among other things, is Messianic and harkens back to passages such as Psalm 2 (see vv 7, 12 for explicit reference to "son" language spoken by Yahweh to His "Anointed," His Messiah). Passages such as these reinforce the Davidic element, and thus in John's context, the matter of genuine human lineage.

His use of "blood" here apparently is in line with John 1:13, where he uses the idea of being born "of blood" to refer to genealogical descent. Even if that is connoted, I think, however, John probably has the cross primarily in view (which if anything would be even more offensive to the view he is countering).

I lean this way due to the way John continues his argument in 5:7/8, where he refers to the "witness" (legal testimony) of τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, "the Spirit and the water and the blood." John himself describes the Baptizer as Jesus' witness in connection with His baptism (Jn 1:32—on "water" as baptism, see below); and of course, the Spirit as witness is a common enough theme (see e.g. Jn 15:26). Blood is more difficult, but it is not very clear to me that John would naturally say that the blood of descent "bears witness." That seems more appropriate to Jesus' cross, and of course all the Gospels give lengthy accounts of that, but John provides no Davidic genealogy, and in fact mentions David only once (Jn 7:42). This is not of course to deny that he believed Jesus was the Son of David; just a note that this is not a major element in the themes that concern him.

The other thing that makes the cross the referent attractive is that it fits well with the other two witnesses as well as with biblical ecclesiology. The Messiah has objective witnesses in the Spirit, the public baptism, and the cross; He has given the Church these witnesses, as well: the outpouring of the Spirit, water baptism, and the eucharist. Paul at least appeals to the Spirit and baptism to provide assurance of divine acceptance (see Gal 3:1–5; 3:27), and to the Eucharist to refer to participation in Christ's body and blood (see 1 Cor 10:16–17).

At any rate, I would think that the cross has heavy overtones in the "blood" reference here, even if one is apt to make genealogical descent central.

Joseph's view of "water" being a reference to eternal life is intriguing and a possible dimension given John's own usage. Indeed, again the overtone is probable.

I suspect, however, that the primary referent is to Jesus' own baptism, which (with the attendant descent of the Spirit, and the consequent divine identification of Jesus as "Son"—see my comments on Ps 2 for the significance of that) turned out to be His public designation and anointing as Yahweh's Messiah. This of course was recorded in all the Gospels, but in John's literature, the Baptizer recounts the event in John 1:32–34, offering the climactic statement, "And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God."

It would seem that the "proto-Gnostics" (or whatever designation we assign to those John is opposing) had less problem with Jesus' baptism than with His death, which is not surprising; in the past, even angels had occasionally eaten, and therefore presumably spirits and manifestations of various sorts could be baptized with water. And so John pushes the point: Not by water only, but also by blood. In other words, Jesus was not only anointed as Messiah at His baptism; He died as the Son of God in fulfillment of that (offensive and mysterious) role.

share|improve this answer

It may be that when 1 John 5:6 says by "water" it means physical birth and "blood" it means physical death. The Spirit is His presence.

That is how I understand the gospel of John 3:5-6 where Jesus says in v5 "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God," followed by v6 where Jesus says "That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."

I believe that verse 6 is parallel with verse 5. Water is equated with physical birth. Whereas, Spirit is equated with spiritual birth. So Jesus says you must not only be born physically but spiritually.

John spends many verses in the epistle of 1 John countering the gnostic arguments of the day floating around where some of them taught that Jesus either never came in the flesh, or some taught that Jesus was some kind of phantom, or some taught that the Christ nature entered Him at baptism and exited Him just before the crucifixion.

If this is the case, John may be saying that "the Word made flesh" (Jesus) physically came and physically died. John would then be saying that the Spirit bears witness of this truth because the Spirit is truth. The "water" "blood" and "Spirit" being in agreement in verse 8 would simply be summarizing the fact that Jesus was born, died, and resurrected.

This runs contrary to the gnostic teaching of the day but compliments John's other claims throughout the book defending Jesus' true Personhood.

1 John 1:1 - "That which we have heard have seen with our eyes our hands have handled"

1 John 4:2 - "Every spirit that confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God"

1 John 4:3 - "Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not from God."

1 John 4:14 - "We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world"

share|improve this answer
I'm very grateful for your participation here. We're a little different from a forum, so do take the site tour if you haven't already. Answers are expected to have informed argument, cite evidence (primary and secondary). You may want to see What are we looking for in answers?. – Paul Vargas Apr 29 '15 at 4:08
The connection with John 3 is important since John (the same Author) quotes Christ using two of the three terms: "water" and "spirit". None of the other answers (which are excellent btw) even mention John 3. So your response is more informed in that regard (thus I don't understand @paul-vargas comment). – wcochran Oct 28 '15 at 21:53

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.