6 This is He who came by water & blood, even Jesus the Christ, not by water only, but the water & the blood, and the Spirit bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. 7 For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. 8 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 5:6-8
This portion of 1 John has been a topic of vigorous textual debate in recent times. With the rise of Textual Criticism in the late 1800s, this and other sections of Scripture were brought under the scholar’s scrutiny to determine which portions of Holy Writ were actually holy. This project, on the whole, was like using a microscope to chart the course of the planets, or using a telescope to examine mitochondria. Too often, this area of study becomes a worm-hole for doubting the entirety of Scripture. It rarely stays confined to a good faith examination of small sections or ironing out minor discrepancies between various manuscripts. In other words, while the Church must labor to preserve the text of Scripture, it must do so within the bounds of evangelical faith.
Often called the Johannine Comma, the portion that has been brought into question is the last half of verse 7, and the first half of verse 8 (in brackets): 7 For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.] 8 [And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the Water, and the Blood, and these three agree in one.
As is evident, these lines clearly carry weighty trinitarian doctrine. Plainly, this passage is of no small doctrinal import. This is kinda the whole enchilada. Of course, we can defend the doctrine of the Trinity from other texts, but this is the most definitive prooftext of that doctrine. So, is it any wonder that it was attacked in ancient times, and that attack has been renewed in our own time?
Without going into a lengthy defense of the authenticity of this passage, it’s worthwhile to provide a few reasons that we should stand stalwart for the inclusion of the Comma. The first argument is quite simple, the grammar of the Greek text doesn’t make much sense if you remove the Comma.1 It also produces an exegetical black hole in verse 9 (the reference to the witness of men & the witness of God becomes a point of confusion).
But another argument can be made that spurious heretics were endeavoring to censor this and other inconvenient texts. Along these lines, one early Christian, Socrates Scholasticus (A.D. c. 380-450), noted that in 1 John 4:2-3 some manuscripts at his time bore evidence of what we nowadays call “tomfoolery”.2 Whereas the Latin Vulgate read: et omnis spiritus qui solvit Iesum ex Deo non (Every spirit that separates/dissolves Jesus, is not of God); some malicious heretics had apparently been changing the text in such a way which in fact separated the human & divine nature of Jesus Christ. It is not incidental that this was one of the very doctrines of Cerinthus which John was battling. In other words, John’s epistle is clear throughout on Christology, and, more to our point, here in 1 John 5:7-8, he’s clear on the Trinity.
These were the debates of the early church, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some funny business could have been going on with copyists, scribes, and translators. Along a similar line, Jerome levels an accusation in his prologue to these epistles that “unfaithful translators contrary to the truth of faith” had introduced error which threatened the doctrine of “the unity of the trinity […] in the first letter of John.”3
But another reason for standing for the authenticity of the Comma is an argument from logic. When it comes to textual variants such as we’re discussing, omission is a far more likely reason than addition is. If you’re a scribe, carefully copying a text to a new manuscript, and you get up to make yourself a cup of coffee, you’re far more likely to accidentally skip a line than to imagine up and write down an entirely new line. Unless the coffee has been laced with hallucinogens, but that’s neither here nor there.
Nevertheless, many of the MSS which we have which omit the Comma were produced in an area that had been a hotbed for the Arian heresy. So it’s not unlikely that some copyists may been grinding their heretical axes. Once they established the omission, later copyists would have unknowingly perpetuated the omission.
Finally, one scholar asks a very insightful question, “If the Comma was a spurious addition to the text, why didn’t the Arian opponents of the Carthaginian council jump all over the council’s use of a verse that was known to be spuriously or recently added?”4 Taking all this together, there is good, sound reasoning to take this phrase as authentic Scripture, and it should be clear that the omission of it in some manuscripts shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
Now, to the real substance of this text. John has just asserted that if you believe that Jesus is the Christ, you are born of God. This section answers the likely objection, “Oh, yeah, says who?” The ground of your salvation is in the divine witness of the Triune God. The Three-in-One bears a united witness that those who believe that Jesus is the Christ are indeed born again.
John states that Jesus came by water & blood. There are two reasons this statement is made. The first is that it is a typological fulfillment, and the second is that this typological fulfillment refutes the Rival-Christ which Cerinthus was teaching. The priests of the OT were to wash in water before carrying out the sacrifices of blood. The assurance of cleansing and atonement in the Levitical system was only through water & blood. Christ’s death on the cross, which John alone of the Evangelists notes, brought forth a healing stream of blood & water (Jn. 19:34). But the other reason John makes this statement has to do with toppling the false Christ of Cerinthus. The false teacher said that the divinity of Christ came upon the man Jesus at his baptism and left him at the cross. John is asserting that Christ’s full life and death were necessary for your assurance of salvation.
So John comforts us with the testimony which the Spirit of truth speaks to those who would cast themselves wholly upon the mercy of Christ Jesus for their salvation. In heaven above, a three-in-one witness testifies that those who have believed that Jesus is the Christ are born of God; while on earth beneath, the Spirit along with the water & blood (encompassing all of Christ’s mediatorial work on our behalf) are added in witness.
The Father, Son, and Spirit bear witness to this truth. The Spirit dwelling within, along with the tokens of Jesus’ earthly ministry are sufficient witnesses to assuage any fear that you are not welcomed into the fellowship of the triune God. Indeed, by two or three witnesses shall every word be established (Mt. 18:16). When it comes to your salvation in Christ, the triune God above, the indwelling Spirit, and the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ all tell you the same thing: “If you believe that Jesus is the Christ, you are born of God.”
To put it short and sweet, you can rest at ease, for you belong to Christ. Christ has won you. Christ has saved you. The triune God says, “Come.” And the Spirit of Christ, who dwells within you says, “Amen (Cf. Rev. 22:17).” And so, the summons to you is this: “Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.”
1 John Calvin takes the view that the Comma is the true reading. (Cf. Calvin, Jean. Calvins Commentaries. Vol. XXII. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999. Pg. 257.)
2 Church history (book VII). CHURCH FATHERS: Church History, Book VII (Socrates Scholasticus). (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/26017.htm
3 “Prologue Canonical Epistles.” Accessed April 12, 2023. https://faithsaves.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Prologue-Canonical-Epistles.pdf.
4 “A Defense of the Johannine Comma.” Accessed April 12, 2023. http://www.verhoevenmarc.be/PDF/Comma-Johanneum-Defence.pdf.
- 1 John 5:20-21 | We Know
- 1 John 5:16-19 | The Sin Unto Death
- 1 John 5:13-15 | Big Prayers
- 1 John 5:9-12 | God on the Stand
- 1 John 5:6-8 | The Threefold Witness
- 1 John 5:1-5 | Swept Up Into Victory
- 1 John 4:17-21 | Bold Sons & Fearful Slaves
- 1 John 4:11-16 | The Offensive Love of God
- 1 John 4:7-10 | God is Love
- 1 John 4:4-6 | Overcoming Swarms of Devils