The One Who witnesses
John now focuses upon “Jesus … the Son of God.” With these words the previous verse (5:5) concluded. The argument now bears upon the witness of God to His Son. We may perhaps detect in John’s mind a double object in this. First and foremost his object is to concentrate and enforce and finalise all the teaching and arguments of the epistle, but secondly we may, perhaps, see here also something of apostolic caution, lest the apostles’ teaching and the Christian experience outlined, should pre-occupy us so as almost to eclipse the person through whom it has all come to us. The Son must have the pre-eminence. We are to be thankful for all that comes to us from God through the ministry of the apostles, but we must never lose sight of the fact that all that is fundamental and indispensable to our future comes to us in reality through the Son. The apostles have declared this, but now, before John concludes, and to enforce all that he has said, he carries us beyond the witness of the apostles to the witness of God, which is greater than that of men.
“And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (5:11). Eternal life, God says, is in the Son. “He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life” (5: 2). This is very emphatic and final. The life, the eternal divine life which is God’s gift to us, is in the Son ,and in no other. God has said it, and John comments: “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater” (5:9). Since we do so readily receive the witness of men about many things, how much more willingly should we receive the witness of God on this!
The threefold witness
Having noticed what it is that God has witnessed to concerning His Son, namely that the life manifested in Him is the life He gives to us, we may ask, How has He given this witness? First we are told; “It is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth” (5:7). God bears witness to His Son by means of the Holy Spirit who is His envoy. The Holy Spirit is God’s medium in this matter of witness, as seen on the occasion of His baptism in Jordan: “He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him; and lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased (Matt. 3:16, 17). “My Son.” “My beloved Son”. This declaration, witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, is of tremendous importance. This term ‘Son’ was not unfamiliar to those who heard it. and would at once recall so much known to them already in their scriptures; for example, the words concerning Israel: “Let my son go that he may serve me” (Exodus 4:5) and, yet more strikingly, of the Messiah; “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee” (Psalm 2:7). At the Jordan and throughout the earthly life of the Lord, the Holy Spirit bore witness that this is the Son with whom the Father is well pleased. Again, when He was exalted to the right hand of God, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples, witnessing to His enthronement (Acts 2:33). The Holy Spirit came down to report, as it were, the exaltation of Jesus. The church in the earth from that day forward is the product and evidence of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the Son.
In verse 8 the apostle speaks of two other witnesses in addition to the Holy Spirit: “For there are three who bear witness, the Spirit, the water and the blood: and the three agree in one” (5:8). All these agree in bearing witness for God to His Son; all emphasize in the first place that divine life is in the Son, and that that life is for us. We may wonder why other witnesses are needed, but the subject is evidently of so great importance that God deems it necessary to call upon the witness of the water and the blood as well as of the Holy Spirit.
The One witnessed to
They all three witness that the life given to us by God through His Son is a pure and guiltless life. Sin defiles and makes us guilty, but divine life is pure and guiltless. Water in the scriptures is often used as a symbol of purity and of the act of purification. When the burnt offering was brought to the priest at the tabernacle, the lamb was cut into pieces, and its inward parts were washed in water (Lev. 1:13). This was done not so much to make the offering pure, as to make evident the fact that the inward parts were pure. Before we cook meat we wash it several times, until the water witnesses that the meat is clean. When John says, “Jesus is the Son of God” (5:5) he goes on to say, “This is He that came by water …” (5:6) which takes us back in thought to His baptism in Jordan. The water then was witness to His purity, and in the same way, the water at our baptism witnesses to our purity by faith in Christ.
Peter links these ideas together: “Water … even baptism … the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21). A good conscience is one that responds to what God has said about sin and its remedy, and in consequence of that response, is purified. The believers testimony in baptism is to something already done for him, namely, that through his union with Christ he is freed from sin, and is therefore purified. Jesus, the Son of God “came by water.” He is the holy, spotless Lamb of God, to whose purity not the water alone but so many others gave witness also. That holy, spotless life is the life God gives to us in Him. When our Lord died, His side was pierced by the spear of a Roman soldier, and “straightway there came out blood and water”. Here the water is for purification—our purification. From the ashes of a red heifer the “water of purification” was provided according to the law (see Num. 19:9, 13). This foreshadowed what the sacrifice of Christ would provide for those who were defiled, namely, a pure and holy life.
Then God’s third medium of witness to the life which He has given in the Son is the blood. “This is He which came by water and by blood, even Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood” (5:6). The blood is for expiation which means that it makes amends and clears the guilty. Paul says, “You hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh, through death, to present you holy and without blemish and unreproveable before him” (Col. 1:21, 22). “Unreproveable” means without guilt. Sin has made us guilty, but from the wounded side of the stricken Son of God there flowed the blood which clears the guilty. He came by blood. He was no phantom or spirit-being, but Man for man; and by the shedding of His blood the law was satisfied and the guilty sinner cleansed and cleared. When John first presented the message to us in chapter one he said, “The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (1:7) and he concludes with an allusion to the witness that God has been giving throughout His word. Every offering of the old dispensation, whether of a bullock or a lamb or a turtle dove, illustrates and affirms the fact that “All things are cleansed with blood, and apart from shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22).
Thus God’s witness to His Son declares that it is His life, His perfect, holy life, that gives Him pleasure, because it is pure and guiltless. This is the life that the Father gives to us, that we also may be for His pleasure, and have peace and joy in Him. “These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God” (5:13).
We are children of God, possessors of divine life, partakers of the holy and guiltless life of His Son, to the end that we too may be holy and without blemish before Him in love.