Spirit, Water, Blood
|Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas|
1 John 5:1–12 (ESV) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and 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 concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that 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.
Many think that, since the Holy Spirit is “spirit,” He must simply float about, unattached from physical means. Some people appeal to John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail,” to try to prove that the Spirit does not attach Himself to fleshly things. But that is a misinterpretation of the verse, for Jesus is actually contrasting the sinful flesh with the Holy Spirit.
If flesh were unsuitable as a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, then the Incarnation would have been impossible. The angel Gabriel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you…therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The misinterpreters of John 6:63 stop short of the reality of the Holy Spirit dwelling in Jesus, for He continues in the same verse, “The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” The Holy Spirit actually attaches Himself to and works through the Word of Jesus. We also see in Acts 2:38 that the gift of the Holy Spirit is given through Baptism: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” John 3:5 likewise teaches that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
This past Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Jesus’ apostles and they began to preach and baptize. But before Pentecost happened, we find some “preliminary” giving of the Spirit occurring. Most translations of John 19:29 say that Jesus “said, ‘It is finished,’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (ESV). Translating the passage this way gives the idea that Jesus simply was giving up His life-spirit, or soul; in other words, He died. But this is not a literal translation from the Greek, which would be, “He bowed His head and handed over the spirit,” not His spirit. Further, though the Greek text does not make a distinction between capital and lowercase letters, “the spirit” would then make more sense as “the Spirit.” In this case, the implication is that, at His death, Jesus handed over the Holy Spirit.
John’s Gospel makes use of deep symbolism to communicate the Gospel to us. It seems likely that by telling us that Jesus “handed over the Spirit” at His death, St. John was indicating symbolically that the work of the cross prepared the way for the giving of the Spirit to the Church, even though the actual outpouring of the Holy Spirit would come at Pentecost.
When Jesus’ side was pierced (John 19:34), the blood and water that flow out bring to mind the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, through which the Spirit does His work in the Church. In John 20:20-23, the wounds from which Jesus bled are shown to the apostles, and He breathes the Holy Spirit onto them so that they can go out and forgive and retain sins. The wounds from the cross earned the forgiveness that they would distribute. In this instance, the apostles receive the Holy Spirit in a different sense than they would at Pentecost, since Jesus had not yet ascended to give them the full gift of the Spirit.
1 John 5:6-8 hearkens back to the cross as well, connecting “the Spirit and the water and the blood” together. These three testify to the grace given through sacramental water and blood, reminding us that the Spirit does not just float about unattached, but connects Himself to water, words, bread, and wine.
Prayer (LSB 597):
Water, blood, and Spirit crying,
By their witness testifying
To the One whose death-defying
Life has come, with life for all.
In a wat’ry grave are buried
All our sins that Jesus carried;
Christ, the Ark of Life, has ferried
Us across death’s raging flood.
Dark the way, yet Christ precedes us,
Past the scowl of death He leads us;
Spreads a table where He feeds us
With His body and His blood.
Though around us death is seething,
God, His two-edged sword unsheathing,
By His Spirit life is breathing
Through the living, active Word.
Spirit, water, blood entreating,
Working faith and its completing
In the One whose death-defeating
Life has come, with life for all. Amen.