Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6
The final chapter of 1 John brings together themes that have been presented throughout the sermon, weaving them together again in order to reinforce the message of love: the love that is from God as revealed through Jesus, and the love that should exist between believers who experience fellowship with each other and with God (see also 1 John 1:3).
Consistent with the style of the sermon, the preacher uses parallelism and chiastic structures to create pleasing and memorable refrains for the audience. Moreover, these refrains echo back to traditions from the Gospel, whether or not that document was finalized at the time of 1 John’s own composition. In particular, 1 John 5:1-6 takes us back to Jesus’ crucifixion and John 20:31: “But these things have been written so that you should believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus, and so that by believing you should have life in his name.”
The refrain that those hearing the Gospel should “believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus” finds its parallel in 1 John 5:1 and 5. In verse 1, the audience is instructed that “Each one believing that the Christ is Jesus has been begotten from God.” Verse 5 completes the clause, “Who is the one who is conquering the world if not the one believing that the Son of God is Jesus?” The connections to John 19-20, however, do not end with these verses. Immediately following, 1 John 5:6-8 reads: “This one is the one having come through water and blood: Jesus Christ.” Although a conclusion to the previous five verses, this verse also introduces the next section as part of a larger chain of words linking their way through the chapter.
Stepping back for a moment, it becomes easier to see this chain of words trickling through the chapter, resuming, and summarizing their appearances from earlier in the sermon. My translation through verse 8 below highlights these chain-links:
1 Each one believing that the Christ is Jesus, has been begotten from God.
And each one who loves the one having begotten
loves also the one having been begotten from him.
2 In this we are knowing that we are loving the children of God:
Whenever we are loving God also we are doing his commandments.
3 For this is the love of God:
That we are keeping his commandments,
and his commandments are not burdensome.
4 Because each thing that has been begotten from God is conquering the world.
And this is the conquest which conquered the world: our faith.
5 Who is the one who is conquering the world,
if not the one believing that the Son of God is Jesus?
6 This one is the one having come through water and blood: Jesus Christ,
not in the water alone, but in the water and in the blood.
And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the Truth.
7 For three are the witnesses:
8 The Spirit and the water and the blood.
And the three are one.
This translation emphasizes repetitions between verses 1-3, 4-5, and 6-8. The use of “believing” transitions to “love,” then to “commandments,” to “conquest,” and so on. The pattern continues as verses 9-12 pick up the motifs of witness, truth, and lies, while also introducing the idea of “eternal life” that segues into verses 13-21. Each of the words highlighted above connects back to previous sections of 1 John, binding them together, focusing the audience again on the main themes of the fellowship with God and with other believers that is the product of God’s love and self-revelation though his unique Son, Jesus, the Christ.
If 1 John 5:1-5 restates previous themes, verses 6–8 can present a challenge to interpreters, and indeed they have done throughout church tradition. Interpreting verse 6 demands looking at verses 7-8, which continue the motif of “water and blood” introduced in verse 6. Two traditions dominate the interpretation of these verses: 1) that the mention of “the water” is a reference to baptism, and 2) that the description of “three in one” in verse 8 is a reference to the Trinity. Without precluding either of these as potential readings, keeping our context in the Johannine literature pushes us in a different direction for interpretation: namely, to the scene of Jesus’ death in John 19:30–37.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus determines the moment of his death. After saying, “It has been completed” (tetelestai), he “reclined his head and gave over the spirit (to pneuma)” (John 19:30). After his death, the soldiers come and, finding him already dead, they pierce his side “and immediately blood and water came out” (verse 34). The Gospel follows this report with an aside that emphasizes its veracity, explaining, “And the one who has seen has witnessed, and his witness is true, and that one knows that he speaks truly, so that you might believe” (verse 35). It is in John 19, therefore, that the exact same collection of words appears as in 1 John 5:6-8: water, blood, Spirit, witness, and truth.
The significance of this connection is that it offers an explanation of what it means to believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus. It means to believe that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:2) and, therefore, that he died. It also means believing that his death is not the end, but rather only part of Jesus’ return to his Father — a return that made possible the giving of the Spirit to his disciples so that they might experience eternal life in his name. This event makes possible Jesus’ prayer from John 17:23: “I am in them and you are in me so that they might be completed into one (osin teteleomenoi eis).” Perhaps as an allusion to this prayer, 1 John 5:8 also describes the unity of witnesses as being “into one” (eis to hen eisin). Belief, therefore, is participation in the realization of Jesus’ prayer.