Finally Someone Gets the “Water and Blood” Right!

May 31, 2012 — 9 Comments

It may be a stuffy academic tome and a whopping $277, but the book, Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism in the New Testament has one major thing going for it.  It’s the only source I’ve found in more than ten years of study which accurately interprets the water in 1 John 5:6 and by extension John 19:34.  The water in both verses refers to Jesus’ divinity.

Not By Water Only

This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. (1 John 5:6)

At its most basic, 1 John 5:6 is a counter claim to a belief that Jesus Christ came in water but not in blood.  John beleives Jesus came both in water and blood.  Some opposing group appears to beleive that He came only in water.


So what does each element mean? Here are the authors of the Mystery of God, with only brief comment from me.

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 how the New Living Translation “translates” it, “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.

John actively opposed Cerinthus and his teaching during his ministry in Ephesus.  Thus Cerinthus becomes the key to unlocking the meaning of water and blood.

Problems with Water Refering 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.

Amen.  So what then does the water mean?

Blood and Water as the Human and Devine 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.

Matthew Scott Miller

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  • J D

    I know this post is a couple years old, but I’ve been studying the topic and search engines led me to your post. Thanks for posting it.
    Like you, I believe that “water and blood” speak of the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. But I see it differently. I believe that water is an allusion to the natural birth of Christ and that blood speaks to his divine nature. Here is how I arrive at my conclusion.

    In John 3:5 Jesus says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Then he explains in verse 6: ” Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Water is connected with flesh, natural birth, and the Spirit is connected with spiritual birth. Not exhaustive, there are other biblical texts that can be construed as relating water and natural birth. I believe John’s original readers would have had his gospel circulated among them before his first letter, thus they would have had heard the saying in John 3:5.

    In 1 John 1:7, the opening lines of his letter, he writes, “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” The blood here speaks to the divinity of Jesus and its accomplishing something spiritual, the cleansing form sin.

    I don’t believe that John would wish to confuse his readers who read in the opening of his letter the spiritual nature of the blood of Jesus by later referring to the blood as the natural element of the incarnate Christ, especially when coupling it with a reference to water.

    John did want to counter the dualism which denied Christ had come in the flesh. He has driven that point throughout his letter. He opened with his eyewitness testimony of Christ in the flesh. By chapter 5 his readers might be growing weary. But John is relentless. Christ came by water–the flesh–and he is divine–his blood cleanses sin. And to this, the Spirit testifies it is true. Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God.

    • Matthew Miller

      Thanks for the comment JD! I see where you’re coming from. I too believe that the John’s Gospel was in circulation before he wrote 1 John. And therefore the right interpretation of the Gospel is essential for understanding the meaning of 1 John 5:6. But I have to disagree with you on your interpretation of John 3:5. Check out my post “What Does it Mean to be “Born of Water”? Water in John, particularly the water in John 19:34, is a symbol of the Spirit. Blood on the other hand is linked with physical birth. John 1:13 says concerning those made children of God, “who were born not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God.” The three expressions here a synonymous. To be born of blood is to be born of the flesh. Blood is also intimately connected with flesh in Jesus bread of life discourse in John 6. I encourage you to read the post cited above. I think it will change your mind about the meaning of water in John 3:5. Thanks again.

      • AJ

        I agree with you both..
        Water being the Spirit
        And the Divine Blood

    • Tim

      I agree with you JD. A common Jewish idiom of natural birth was being born of the water. I see the reference as stating the Lord’s natural birth, and divine blood. After all, His blood was precious blood. “The Blood of God” as it were. It is also interesting to note that Jesus is called the Second Adam, and the meaning of the name Adam is literally “God’s Blood.”

  • William Emswiler

    The objective of this chapter is to teach us how we are to overcome the world. The means by which we overcome is Christ. Yet who is Christ? The answer is water and blood. The water is the Word of truth that washes us. The blood is the mercy of God that sent Christ to the Cross so that we could by the shedding of blood find forgiveness and enter into eternal life. For it is also written that the water and the blood are witnesses upon the earth.

  • Natalie Turner

    It was God’s blood in the Flesh of Jesus Christ. Babies don’t receive their blood from their mothers…It comes only from their fathers. If Christ Jesus had blood from a human it would have been tainted. His Blood was holy and from His Father, God!

    • Paila

      What?! “Babies don’t receive their blood from their mothers…It comes only from their fathers.” Please explain.

  • Ben Juda

    “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.” Consider the two words “come by”, does this not refer to his birth, God incarnate? His death does not signify his coming. As for the believer, one must be cleansed by the blood, born of water and of Spirit to enter God’s kingdom.