“There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree” (1 John 5:7-8). A couple of weeks ago I dreamed about this verse. I therefore believe that it is significant. As a result of this dream I have spent some time thinking about what this verse has to say to the church in the present.
To understand this we need to understand several things: what is the testimony about; what is the role of the Spirit; what is the significance of water and of blood? I will outline these below and then discuss why this verse seems to be so important in the church at the present. I have confined by thinking to the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and the Revelation of John, because this gives a coherent picture of what John understood by these terms.
“There are three that testify.” The words for testimony and testify (or witness) are words which we might say belong to the apostle John. They are used elsewhere in the Bible, but John’s writings have the lion’s share of these (26 out of 43 verses for testimony; 44 out of 80 verses for testify). The testimony is always about Jesus Christ. Various people etc testify about Jesus: John the Baptist (John 1:7-8, 15, 19, 32, 34; 3:26, 28); the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:39); the work which the Father gave him (John 5:36; 10:25); the scriptures (John 5:39); the crowds who saw Lazarus raised from the dead (John 12:17); the Spirit (John 15:26); the disciples (John 15:27; 19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:2; 4:14); those who suffer for the gospel (Rev 1:9; 6:9; 12:11, 17; 20:4); and all prophecy (Rev 19:10). Since the testimony is always about Jesus Christ, we know that the Spirit, the water and the blood testify about Jesus as well. The next question is, “What do they say?”
The Holy Spirit rested on Jesus (John 1:32-33) and dwelt in him without limit (John 3:34), demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah, who baptises with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enables entrance to the kingdom of God, (John 3:5) of which Jesus is the king. He teaches believers all about Jesus, what he has said and is saying (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15). He testifies that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:2). So the Holy Spirit testifies to the reality and significance of the incarnation, that Jesus is the one whom God has anointed and crowned king and who brings in the long awaited kingdom of God that the scriptures promised. Jesus is not ‘personal saviour’ but the one who brings about the great purposes of God for the world. Secondly, the Holy Spirit continues to speak about Jesus, reminding us of what Jesus has said and what Jesus is saying to our culture and our present situation. According to the verse above, the testimony of the Spirit will be in accord with the water and the blood. That is to say, whatever the Holy Spirit has to say to our culture and to the church in the present will be in agreement with the testimony of the water and the blood, and will testify to the person of Christ. So what do the water and the blood have to say?
Water is used for baptism (which symbolises cleansing and forgiveness of sin) and the Baptism of John was to reveal Jesus as Messiah (John 1:23-31). It was used for cleansing, but Jesus turned the water of cleansing into the wine of blessing (John 2:6-9, see Joel 3:17-18). Being born of water is necessary in order to enter the kingdom of God. Possibly this is a reference to Ezek 36:25, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” Jesus offered the woman at the well living water so that she would never thirst again (John 4:13-14). This water wells up to eternal life. The living water is identified as the Holy Spirit in John 7:38. It is mentioned again in Revelation 7:17; 21:6; 22:1, 17. In Revelation it is not identified with the Holy Spirit, but may in fact be the water of eternal life. The Old Testament refers to living water in three places: Jer 2:13 and 17:13 where it is Yahweh who is the spring of living water; and Zech 14:18 in which the living water may refer to eternal life. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in water and this washing is symbolic of forgiveness and cleansing from sin (John 13:5). Water, therefore, is used to symbolise cleansing from sin, the presence of the Holy Spirit, eternal life and God himself. These are give testimony to Jesus Christ.
Eternal life is in no one unless they eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. This is, I suppose, an exhortation to have Jesus as the sustainer of our life (John 6:53-56). Both blood and water flowed out of his side after Jesus died (John 19:34). John (19:36) refers to Zechariah 12:10 – “they will look on me, the one they have pierced” as fulfilled in the events of the crucifixion. The Zechariah passage is followed in 13:1 by “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” The water and the blood serve the purpose of cleansing people from sin. 1 John 1:7 makes it plain that the blood of Jesus cleanses from sin. The blood of Jesus is mentioned many times in Revelation. It frees us from sin (1:5), purchased humanity for God (5:9), gives the saints a covering of victory (7:14), enables the saints to overcome the world (12:11), and is that which identifies Jesus as the Word of God (19:3). Without the shed blood of Christ the saints would not be cleansed from sin and they would not be able to lay down their lives for the testimony of Jesus (Rev 17:6).
Both water and blood can also be part of judgement for those who do not accept the testimony to Jesus Christ. “The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood,” (Revelation 8:7-8). “The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say: ‘You are just in these judgments, you who are and who were, the Holy One, because you have so judged; for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve’” (Rev 16:4-6). Since the Spirit, the water and the blood testify to Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, who came to provide forgiveness of sins and victory over sin, plus to give the gift of the Holy Spirit, those who refuse to listen to this testimony are judged in accordance with their refusal to heed the message of the water and the blood.
Now let’s turn back to the passage in 1 John 5:7-8 and see the purpose for which John exhorts his readers to heed to testimony of the Spirit, the water and the blood.
1 John 5:6 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 man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
The Spirit, the water and the blood are not the testimony of human beings, but rather the testimony which God has given about his Son. We must therefore pay special attention to this testimony. Verses 11-12 tell us that the reason God has given us this testimony about his Son is so that we might have life, and life is found in the Son. In order to have life we must pay attention to the testimony of the Spirit, the water and the blood.
In meditating on this purpose, I considered the fact that life or eternal life has been equated with salvation. There are some problems with this equation. The first is that salvation can often be used to mean being freed from Hell. While we are not subject to the wrath of God because of the work of Christ, salvation is far more than “a free ticket to heaven”. Secondly, this equating of life with salvation seems to relegate (reduce) any mention of life to contexts in which evangelism takes place. Once a person has “gained” “salvation” there is no more need to speak about life. Life becomes something which we have in our bag of possessions and it has no further use. Yet, the epistle is not written for the purpose of evangelism, but for the exhortation of the church. This means that Christians must understand what this life is that is found in the Son. It means something far better than simply a “free ticket to heaven”.
The life which Jesus offers is the opposite of wrath (John 3:36). The water that Jesus offers the woman at the well is living water (John 4:10), that is water that gives life rather than merely sustaining existence. Jesus has been granted the power to bestow life. All those who believe in him already have this life (John 5:21, 24). This life is more than a long existence, since when the dead are raised those who heed the words of Jesus will live and the others will be condemned (John 5:29). Life comes from eating the flesh of Jesus, who is the bread of life, and drinking his blood (John 6:35-59). This is a hard saying, but it means (at least) that we must be intimately sustained by the person of Christ in order to have life. Jesus promised his disciples, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19b). He is not speaking here of merely continuing to exist. Life is not existence, and eternal life is not eternal existence. Jesus spells this out in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.”
If knowing God is life and life is knowing God, then this life is not something which a person can acquire and put into a bag of “possessions” to be paraded when necessary. Instead life is an ongoing relationship which must be nurtured and sustained. Knowing God involves sharing the relationship of the Father and the Son in the power of the Spirit. Since relationships can grow more intimate or grow cold, it is necessary to work to make them better. If life is not spoken about as a relationship, then we may simply think of it as a possession. The result of this misconception is that the Christian walk revolves around a list of things to do, and becomes a series of religious matters to attend to. It is not surprising that many Christians live this way.
I believe that the reason that I had a dream about the testimony of the Spirit, the water and the blood is because the Father is calling people to experience life as an intimate relationship. To sustain and nurture this intimate relationship requires that we understand and take heed of the testimony of the Spirit, the water and the blood. That many Christians are unable to sustain intimacy with God suggests that the Spirit, the water and the blood are not being heard in their testimony to Jesus Christ. So what are we not hearing about Spirit, water and blood, and what can we do about this problem?
Let’s begin with the Spirit. In my experience, there are two ways in which churches approach the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals speak a lot about the Holy Spirit as one who gives power. He empowers people and gives spiritual gifts. This appeals both to our desire for the supernatural and excitement. However, this does not treat the Spirit as a divine person who testifies to Jesus Christ. Intimacy with God is thereby sacrificed in the call to be powerful Christians doing powerful and exciting things for God. On the other hand, mainstream Christians want to avoid the Pentecostal emphasis on the Spirit and do not proclaim much, if anything, about the Holy Spirit. He is God and part of the trinity and possibly the author of the Scriptures, but not actually thought of as a person with whom we can relate. Since (according to this view) the Holy Spirit is impersonal, his testimony to Jesus is only given through the Bible, which we can understand using our rational faculties. In both these scenarios the testimony of the Holy Spirit to Jesus, to what he does in the church and what he says to the church, is hidden. We must revive proclamation about the person of the Holy Spirit so that we will hear his testimony to Jesus. Without the Holy Spirit we can never experience the intimacy of relationship that the Father and the Son have invited us to enjoy (1 Cor 2:10-12).
The testimony of the water is twofold – that we are cleansed from sin and given the water of life, that is, the Holy Spirit. The blood of Jesus also testifies that we are cleansed from sin. Knowing that we have been washed and forgiven is very important in terms of intimacy with God. If guilt and shame pervade the church, then the people of God will not come to the Father, but shrink back and turn to idolatrous substitutes for intimacy. There are many of these, aside from the obvious money, pleasure, entertainment and finding meaning in work. What I am speaking of here are religious things, such as using people as mediators between Christians and God. This can take the form of pastors, priests, or other leaders, or it can be seen in reading Christian books instead of the Bible. It can also involve seeking out ‘spiritual’ experiences in order to feel that we have somehow met with God. But if we listen to the testimony of the water and the blood, we could be freed from guilt and shame and know that we are acceptable in the eyes of the Father. Thus we would be confident to come to the Father through Jesus Christ, instead of substituting other things for genuine intimacy with him.
There are two things which seem to be standing in the way of hearing the testimony of the water and the blood. The first is the downplaying of the sacraments in churches. In the church I have most recently been a part of there has not been a baptism (to my knowledge) in two and a half years. The pastor told me that communion is not very important. This strongly speaks to a theology which sees sacraments as secondary and unimportant. The second matter is a lack of proclamation of the blood of Christ. To see if I were imagining this, I searched the sermons of a large church in Perth and found no reference at all to blood. The blood of Jesus is by no means a minor matter of doctrine, but it seems to have little place in preaching.
If Christians are to experience the life which we are promised, that is sharing in the Trinitarian communion, then we must heed the testimony of the Spirit, the water and the blood. In order to heed this testimony we must first hear it. Therefore, Christian leaders must faithfully proclaim this testimony. Then we can experience the life which God desires for his people.
 A church near me had a sign up for some time promising, “Free ticket to heave, enquire within”.