Commentary on 1 John 5:9-13
Three particularly Johannine words stand out in this passage–words important both in John’s Gospel and in 1 John: believe (pisteuô), witness (both the verb martureô and the noun marturia), and life (zoê).
Although our pericope begins at 1 John 5:9-13, the preceding verses in chapter 5 are critical to understanding the passage, which returns to the Christological controversy dividing the community.1 1 John 5:1-5 emphasizes the importance of believing that Jesus (the human Jesus) is the Christ and Son of God. Verses 6-8 center on the theme of witness, naming three witnesses unified in their testimony concerning Jesus Christ: water, blood, and Spirit.
This trio of witnesses is almost certainly an allusion to John 19:34, where a soldier pierces the side of the crucified Jesus, and blood and water flow out. The narrator adds in verse 35: “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” The narrator’s comment assures the reader that the beloved disciple, whose testimony is the foundation for John’s Gospel, was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death.
This eyewitness testimony to the water and blood flowing from Jesus’ side is important to countering those who deny the full humanity of Christ. The fact that the author of 1 John insists that Jesus Christ came “not with the water only, but with the water and the blood” (1:6), perhaps indicates that the dissident group emphasized Jesus’ baptism as the moment that demonstrated his endowment by the Spirit and his filiation to God, but not his death on the cross. The author counters that the human death of Jesus is indispensable to testimony about him. He further asserts that “the Spirit is the one that testifies” (to the one who came by water and blood), “for the Spirit is the truth.” The triple witness of water, blood, and the Spirit declares unequivocally that Jesus Christ suffered and died a real human death (5:7-8).
The theme of witness continues in verses 9-12. Verse 9 begins with a conditional statement in which the condition is assumed to be true: “If we receive human testimony (and we do), the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.” The testimony of God is not different from the testimony of the Spirit, but one and the same, since the Spirit is the Paraclete sent by God (see also John 14:16-17; John 15:26).
The author writes not to convince unbelievers but to fortify the faith of believers who have this testimony within them (verse 10). “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (verses 11-12). In verse 13, the author again echoes John’s Gospel in stating the purpose of this writing: “so that you may know that you have eternal life” (see also John 20:31).
Life (zoê) and eternal life (zoê aiônios) are virtual synonyms in John’s Gospel and in 1 John. In John 17:3, Jesus prays to God: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life begins here and now for those who believe in Jesus Christ and know the only true God. It is abundant life (John 10:10), life that death cannot destroy (John 11:25-26).
The author of 1 John asserts that believers can know that they have passed from death to life because they love one another (1 John 3:14). Love is evidence for everything that matters in the Johannine literature: that we are children of God, that we abide in Christ, that we are his disciples, that we have eternal life.
Far from being an escape from this world, eternal life in the Johannine understanding is a call to authentic human existence in the world, a call to embody the love of God made known to us in the Word made flesh.
- See my commentary on 1 John 1:1–2:2.