The Testimony of Three Witnesses (John 5:7-8)

Question

What does 1 John 5:7-8 mean?

Answer

Thanks for your question. First, let’s deal with a textual problem that is revealed when comparing the ESV and the KJV versions of 1 John 5:7-8:

1 John 5:7-8 (KJV) For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

1 John 5:8 (ESV) For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

Notice the difference? Why does the ESV version seem to be leaving out the KJV verse 7? Because this verse is not found in approximately 99% of the earliest Greek manuscripts. It was most likely added by a scribe at a later date. [1]

Now we can proceed to an understanding of the text itself. In the previous verses (1 John 5:1-5), John has established that the confession of Jesus’ incarnation is essential for overcoming the world. In a courtroom-type maneuver, John now moves on to defend the doctrine of the incarnation; that God literally came in the flesh. [2]

Notice that John uses the word "testify" and then mentions three witnesses: "the Spirit and the water and the blood." This is a courtroom argument, and it’s the argument of all arguments. He is saying the saints can absolutely know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). John is providing a "more sure word of testimony" (2 Pet 1:19) — the surest word, from God himself (cf. Heb. 6:13). As Moses wrote, "Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established" (Deut. 19:15; cf. Num. 35:30; Matt. 18:16; John 8:17; 2 Cor 13:1; Heb. 10:28). [3] Here John provides for us the three witnesses of the absolute truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Each witness takes their turn on the witness stand to testify that Jesus lived and died and is the Savior of his people! They all agree in one.

There are two primary understandings of these passages. In one some theologians say that the blood and water refer to the wound in Jesus’ side which therefore confirms the absolute actuality, certainly and reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not just a mere probability. It’s important to note that these events were earlier described in John’s gospel. He wrote, "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water" (John 19:34; cf. John 20:25). And by adding that the Holy Spirit testifies with this wound of wounds (1 John 5:7-8), John exhibits that believers will confess the death of the truly incarnate Savior (cf. John 1:14; 1 John 1:2; 2:23; 4:2, 15; 5:1; 2 John 1:7).

Other theologians say that Jesus came by water and blood, and the Spirit testifies with them concerning the person of Jesus. In this interpretation, the water refers to Jesus’ baptism (John 1:29-33). It is also instructive to note that Jesus’ first miracle, which is only recorded in John’s gospel (John 2:1-11), is where he, by the Spirit, changes water into wine. [4]

So, the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry is emphasized by his baptism and Spirit’s ministry through him. But the end is highlighted as well, as the blood refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection (John 19:34; cf. John 20:25). [5] Therefore, the Holy Spirit through John is confirming that Jesus’ entire life is applied to the believer. In the Great Exchange there is a swap that takes place where God (1) takes all the sinner's debits (our sin/our unrighteousness) and places them on Christ's account (2 Cor. 5:21) while (2) taking all Christ's credits (his righteousness/his works) and placing them on the believer's account (1 Cor. 1:30). How great a salvation! (Heb. 2:3).

No matter which interpretation (IMO the two may be combined), one thing is clear — John is defending God’s testimony of the incarnation (1 John 5:9).

Do you believe Jesus is [6] fully God and man? In John’s day, the Spirit of the Lord testified to the incarnation. Today if you claim to be a Christian, you will likewise agree with the Spirit that Jesus is truly God and truly man as this is the testimony God gives to all believers (1 John 5:10-12).

Footnote

[1] The King James version of 1 John 5:7-8 is very doubtful. A scholarly article entitled, “The Textual Problem in 1 John 5:7-8” explains:

This longer reading is found only in eight late manuscripts, four of which have the words in a marginal note. Most of these manuscripts (2318, 221, and [with minor variations] 61, 88, 429, 629, 636, and 918) originate from the 16th century; the earliest manuscript, codex 221 (10th century), includes the reading in a marginal note which was added sometime after the original composition. Thus, there is no sure evidence of this reading in any Greek manuscript until the 1500s; each such reading was apparently composed after Erasmus’ Greek NT was published in 1516. Indeed, the reading appears in no Greek witness of any kind (either manuscript, patristic, or Greek translation of some other version) until AD 1215 (in a Greek translation of the Acts of the Lateran Council, a work originally written in Latin). This is all the more significant, since many a Greek Father would have loved such a reading, for it so succinctly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. ([https://bible.org/article/textual-problem-1-john-57-8] Last Accessed 3 Oct. 2020).

More than likely the passage originated as commentary by a scribe desiring to defend the doctrine of the Trinity and in time it made its way into the text itself. Please see, "Textual Note - 1 John 5:7-8" and "KJV-Only, Error of Errors: The 1611 KJV Preface Disagrees with KJO" below.

[2] Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity and the eternal son of God, took to himself a true human nature for the purpose of saving his elect from their sins. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.22 asks, “How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?” It answers, “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”

[3] Look at the beauty of the structure of the book of Hebrews. The author piles up a "cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1) as to the topic of faith in the Lord. He begins with the early Old Testament prophets (Heb. 1:1-2). He progresses to the angels (Heb. 1:5-14). Next the Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:4; 10:15-18). Then we observe Moses (Heb. 3:1-6). After this we see an entire congregation — a "roll call" of witnesses (Heb. 11:1-40) — witness after witness that Jesus is the Christ and is the sole sacrifice for the sins of all his people.

[4] John uses a wide range of symbolic words when he writes. Both wine and weddings are used throughout the Bible as indicators of the messianic age and of the coming feast in glory. It’s significant that the text mentions "on the third day" (John 2:1; cf. Matt. 12:40; Luke 24:7; 1 Cor. 15:4). While this refers to the third day after Jesus had left Judea, it is also symbolic as well of Jesus’ resurrection. The phrase "My hour has not yet come" (John 2:4) makes this clear. This miracle has messianic implications.

This miracle or sign mentions two liquids; water and wine. The six water pots of stone signified the manner of the purifying of the Jews under the old covenant (John 2:6; cf. Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:2, 5; Luke 11:38). They were filled to the brim (John 2:7) — symbolizing his complete fulfillment of the old covenant (cf. Matt. 5:17-18). The wine represents the blood of Christ in the new covenant (Matt. 26:28). One covenant was transformed into the other. So, the new has elements of the old. Please see, "The Re-Newed or New Covenant?" below.

It’s instructive to note that even today water is still changed into wine. Grapes require about 1/2 to 1 inch of water per week. The process of making a fine wine involves a long process of tilling, planting, growth, gathering, crushing, fermentation, clarification, aging and bottling. In a similar manner, the old covenant was a long process culminating in the new covenant; the best wine saved for last (John 2:10). In Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine, he reduced a natural long process to an instant in time, signifying the cross the instant his blood was spilled and he died. The blood of Jesus is the best wine; the only one that saves (Acts 4:12; cf. Gal. 4:4; cf. Rom. 5:6; 1 Tim. 2:6).

[5] This interpretation assumes John is refuting the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus (c. 50-100 AD) who, among other errors, taught that the visible world and heavens were made by a lesser deity known as the Demiurge. Cerinthus also maintained that the spirit of Christ descended upon Jesus at his baptism but left him just before his death. So, by asserting that Jesus came by water and blood, John would be maintaining that Jesus remained the God-man even in his death and therefore had a genuine incarnation.

[6] Jesus "was" but still "is" fully God and man. Jesus is presently at the right hand of God. And one day his saints will see him face to face. We will still see the wounds of our resurrected Jesus (i.e. John 20:24-29). He is risen; He is risen, indeed! (cf. Luke 24:34).

Related Topics

Textual Note - 1 John 5:7-8
KJV-Only, Error of Errors: The 1611 KJV Preface Disagrees with KJO
The Re-Newed or New Covenant?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).