1 John 5:6-9 talks about “three witnesses” to Christ:
This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has borne witness to his Son.
To the extent that this passage gets talked about, it’s usually about the so-called Johannine Comma, and whether or not it’s original to the text.* The Johannine Comma isn’t included in this translation (contrast it with 1 John 5:6-9 KJV), and it’s not the focus of this post. Rather, I want to know: what does St. John mean about there being three witnesses? Obviously, there are also more than three witnesses to Christ, including the Apostles (Acts 1:8). Why specify only three witnesses? And why these three? The list is odd: the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is listed alongside a couple of inanimate liquids: “water” and “blood.”
To get a deeper understanding, we need to know what John means by “witnesses,” as well as what he means by “the water” and “the blood.” The Greek word for “witnesses” here is from the verb “martyreō.” It literally means “to be a witness” or “to bear witness,” but the meaning ran much deeper than that for the early Christians. This word is related to our term “martyr,” because the martyr was someone who “bore witness” to the Gospel with his life. In other words, this isn’t about simply finding “clues” for Who Jesus is. There’s something more radical and active at work.
To get a sense of just what that is, let’s turn to the meaning of “the water and the blood.” Tertullian (155-240) explains in On Baptism:
We have indeed, likewise, a second font, (itself withal one with the former,) of blood, to wit; concerning which the Lord said, I have to be baptized with a baptism, when He had been baptized already. For He had come by means of water and blood, [1 John 5:6] just as John has written; that He might be baptized by the water, glorified by the blood; to make us, in like manner, called by water, chosen by blood. These two baptisms He sent out from the wound in His pierced side, in order that they who believed in His blood might be bathed with the water; they who had been bathed in the water might likewise drink the blood. This is the baptism which both stands in lieu of the fontal bathing when that has not been received, and restores it when lost.
In other words, the three witnesses of Jesus are the waters of Baptism, the Blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Why these three?
Because these three provide an interior and transformative witness. That is, they don’t reach us from without, the way that human testimony do. if we’ve been redeemed by His Blood, if we’ve been regenerated in Baptism, and enlightened by His Spirit, we’ve got the witness of Jesus Christ in our hearts. This is why John says that these three don’t operate like the testimony of men, but like the testimony of God. God alone can speak to us from within in the way that these three witnesses do. Listen to the Scriptures on this point.
The Witness of the Blood
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul says that sinners “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:24-25). Two chapters later, he says that “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9). And to the Ephesians, he writes that “In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7-8). So the Blood of Christ does something: it saves and transforms us.
The Witness of the Spirit
Jesus refers to this interior operation of the Holy Spirit when He tells the Apostles: “And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11). And it’s also this witness that St. Peter seems to have in view when he says that “no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21).
In fact, the Apostolic witnesses are witnesses precisely because the Holy Spirit is at work in them, empowering them (Acts 1:8): “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” That’s why Jesus tells the Apostles, at the Last Supper: “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).
But the Holy Spirit’s role isn’t just to enable us to bear witness to the Gospel to others. It’s also that He bears witness to the Gospel within us. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that God chose them “from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Earlier, he had reminded them that “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction,” and applauded that they “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thes. 1:4-6).
That is, the Thessalonians didn’t just receive the Gospel because St. Paul (the external witness of the truth) was persuasive, but because the Holy Spirit was at work within them from the beginning. And the Holy Spirit didn’t just lead them to the truth, but continued to sanctify them for salvation. For this reason, Paul instructs Timothy to “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (2 Timothy 1:13-14). So the Holy Spirit does something: He saves and transforms us.
The Witness of the Water
Closely allied to the working of the Holy Spirit are the waters of Baptism. From the very beginning, Christ ties Baptism to the Holy Spirit, and connects them both with salvation and entry into the Church. In John 3:5, He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And in Mark 16:16, He promises that “he who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
We see this message repeated by the Apostles from the first Pentecost (Acts 2:37-40):
Now when they [the crowd] heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Peter calls upon the people to be saved by getting Baptized, promising that they would thereby receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Many years later, in his encyclical to the whole Church, St. Peter reminded us of how Noah and his family were, in his words, “saved through water” (1 Peter 3:20). Lest that parallel was too subtle, he adds (1 Peter 3:21-22):
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
So Baptism saves us. And how? By appealing to God for a clear conscience. That is, through interior transformation. Once again, St. Paul is the one to address this most directly. In Titus 3:3-7, he says:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
So our justification is by grace, yes, but it’s justification brought about by the outpouring of Jesus Christ, by the regenerative Baptismal waters, and by the renewal of the Holy Spirit. So the water of Baptism as does something: it saves and transforms us.
The 19th century Anglican scholar Alfred Plummer was hardly alone (only a bit more candid, perhaps) when he said that he found 1 John 5:6-9 to be “the most perplexing passage in the Epistle and one of the most perplexing in the New Testament.” If you think that the waters of Baptism are just an impotent symbol, it’s easy to see why this passage would make no sense. Why include a symbol alongside the Holy Spirit or the Blood of Christ?
But “impotent symbol” isn’t a way that Scripture presents Christ’s Baptism. To be sure, there are symbolic baptisms in Scripture: John the Baptist’s. But he promises, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8). In the very next verse, we read (Mark 1:9-11),
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
That is, the Holy Spirit descends in Christ’s Baptism, something that John the Baptist is (admittedly) incapable of bringing about on his own. This distinction between Christ’s Baptism and John’s is recalled in Acts 19:1-7, in which Paul encounters a group of 12 believers who hadn’t received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). Upon inquiry, Paul realizes that this is because they’ve only had John’s baptism, a symbolic baptism of repentance (Acts 19:3-4). He then gives them a Christian Baptism, and the Holy Spirit is imparted to them with the laying on of his hands (Acts 19:5-6).
Rather than an important symbol, Scripture repeatedly points to the waters of Baptism, along with the Blood of Christ and the workings of the Holy Spirit, as being responsible for our interior transformation, leading us from death to life, and bringing us into a state of fidelity with Jesus Christ.
*Sidenote: the Johannine Comma refers to a more explicitly Trinitarian version of this passage, saying that “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Because the Comma isn’t quoted by any of the Fathers (even when it would have been an obvious silver bullet during debates about the Trinity), and because it isn’t found in any of the oldest manuscripts, it is not included in modern translations; certain older translations, like the KJV, included it as canonical